"A REASON TO LIVE"
* * * * * * * *
The day dawned gray and dismal.
Dark, swollen clouds stacked up overhead, but not a drop of rain had been shed. Shannon had slept in for as long as she could, but her backache finally woke her up. Unable to find a comfortable position, she sat up on the edge of the bed, too tired to move, feeling all out of sorts. There was nothing specific she could put her finger on, and chalked it up to sleeplessness and distress over the argument. The baby had literally tossed and turned half the night, while Shannon tossed and turned the other half.
She'd replayed his accusation a hundred times, and still couldn't believe it. Johnny didn't think the baby was his. Her brain was numb from trying to process it.
Forcing herself to get up, she pulled on her robe while her feet automatically found the slippers by the side of the bed. Shannon went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Sticking out her tongue in disgust at her reflection, she went about her business without looking again.
When she finally... as she pictured it in her mind... waddled... into the kitchen, Johnny was there finishing a cup of coffee. She thought he’d already left, or she would have waited. He rinsed his cup and put it in the dishwasher, then walked right by her without a word. He grabbed his keys off the counter and picked up his jacket.
The last thing she wanted to do was talk to him. "What time are you going to be home?"
"Don't know,” he answered coldly. “Why?"
"We.... No, I... I have my last Lamaze class today at four. I don’t want to miss it, but I don't feel up to driving myself. I just wondered if you'd be back in time to take me. If not, I'm sure I can ask Sheila.” She glared at him. “You don't have to stay, I just need a ride."
Johnny started to say something, then switched gears. "I'll take you. I'll be home by three at the latest. That'll give me time to shower before we go."
"You don't have to...."
"Look..., I said I'll be back. I'll take you."
Shannon felt nothing but relief when she heard the door slam. She stood in the kitchen for a long time, trying to decide if she felt like eating anything.
The baby had been relatively quiet for the last few hours, and she was grateful for the respite. Her back ached and her ankles were swollen. Not that she could see them, of course. Her hands were so puffy, her fingers hurt when she bent them. Shannon decided it would be a good day to do nothing but lay on the couch until it was time to go. Two more weeks and it would all be over. Maybe the decisions she had to make would be easier then.
The last six months had been an emotional roller coaster with more dips and twists than she cared to count. She almost laughed when she remembered how she thought it was going to be a piece of cake. But it wasn't funny. Life had been full of hard lessons since then, and she'd learned every one of them the hard way.
The couch and the TV beckoned, and deciding she wasn't hungry just yet, Shannon answered the call.
She was blissfully asleep within minutes.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny really didn't relish the idea of running in cold, damp weather. He hadn't slept all night and his joints were stiff and sore from the long walk last evening. The weather only added to his discomfort. A chilly wind ruffled through his hair and he shivered slightly as he glanced toward the sky. Rain looked imminent. Jill had picked a park with a fairly level dirt trail to run on, and insisted on a slow, lengthy warm-up before she would let him try to run in these conditions.
They started off on a steady pace, and hadn't even gone a half-mile before the pain set in with a vengeance. Jill told him to stop running, but to keep walking so his muscles didn't tighten up. He shook his head and kept going. They'd set a goal to run a mile and he was determined to finish it. It kept his mind off the things Shannon had said.
By the end of the run, his leg burned like a raging fire from his hip to his knee. Jill planted herself in the grass on the small hillside next to the trail and insisted he walk around for a few minutes to cool down. Finally deciding that he needed to sit down before he fell down, he dropped to the ground beside her. Still too breathless to speak, he laid back, his left leg stretched out straight, the other bent with the knee up. His leg was absolutely killing him. As usual, he'd pushed too hard. He closed his eyes and tried to get his breathing back to normal and his heart rate to slow down. For a moment he wondered if he should have listened to Brackett.
The lush, cool grass felt good beneath him, and the earthy aroma of the dirt and grass and the promise of rain in the air helped him relax. He felt a few drops spatter on his arm.
His hand reached up and brushed away a blade of grass that was tickling his ear. It was back again a few seconds later, and he suspected there was a hand holding the grass. He waited for it again, then without opening his eyes, reached out and grabbed her wrist and pulled. Surprised by the sudden grip, Jill fell across his chest.
Johnny opened his eyes and raised his head off the ground. He tasted her lips on his, then felt her tongue slide temptingly in and out of his mouth; he felt the tantalizing heat of her body as it pressed tightly against his. Her hand slipped under his waistband and eagerly sought him out as he slid his hands down her arms.
A hard rain finally began to fall.
* * * * * * * *
She had been up and down all day. When she wasn't dozing uncomfortably on the couch, she was cleaning the kitchen counters or washing the mirrors in the bathrooms, or rearranging things in the nursery. She tried to stay busy... anything to keep her mind off Johnny and their argument last night. Nothing seemed to work.
Shannon glanced at the clock on the mantel. Johnny had said he'd be home a half-hour ago. Concentrating on the sound of the rain falling on the deck outside, she tried to stop thinking about where he was and what he was doing, but the song wasn't helping.
... Oh my God, you can't believe it's happening again.
Your baby's gone and you're all alone and it looks like the end.
She was doing it, again. Listening to sad love songs. About love affairs that had reached their end. If it hadn't been such an effort, she would have gotten off the couch again and turned it off.
... How do you start it over? You don't know if you can.
You don't care much for a stranger's touch but you can't hold your man.
Her heart ached as she cried. She'd loved him and lost him again, and there was nothing more she could do but let him go.
You never thought you'd be alone
this far down the line
and I know what's been on your mind,
you're afraid it's all been wasted time.
Had she wasted almost nine years, loving a man whose love for her had turned as cold and bitter as the weather?
The autumn leaves have got you thinking
about the first time that you fell.
You didn't love the boy too much,
no no, you just loved the boy too well.
Shannon had loved Johnny with all her heart and always would. She just couldn't live this way any longer. She would not raise her son where he wasn't wanted. She wept for what could have been and what she knew now would never be.
So you can get on with your search, baby,
and I can get on with mine.
And maybe someday we... will... find...
that it wasn't really wasted time.
"Oh, no," Shannon whispered to herself as she swung her legs off the couch and sat up. There was no waiting for Johnny now. She reached for the phone and dialed the neighbor's number, praying Sheila would be home. The phone rang a long time, and just as she was about to hang up, Shannon heard the voice on the other end of the line.
"Sheila, it's Shannon. I need your help.... My water just broke and Johnny's not here. Can you drive me to the hospital? No... no, I'm not due for two weeks yet. I don't know when Johnny's getting home.... Thank you.... Just pull in the driveway and I’ll be right out."
She hung up the phone and stood there, tears streaming down her face. Not only was Johnny not going to be there when the baby was born, he was with... her. A small cramp brought her back to the moment at hand and reminded her there wasn't time to think about that now. The baby was coming. Fortunately, she'd listened to her Lamaze instructor and had a bag already packed and sitting in the closet by the front door.
Shannon heard a car drive up and looked hopefully out the window. Her heart sank in disappointment when she saw it was Sheila. Johnny wasn't coming. Picking up her bag and a towel to sit on in the car, she hastily went out the door.
She didn't even take the time to leave a note.
* * * * * * * *
"Okay, Shannon. You're coming along just fine." The nurse smiled and rubbed her arm in sympathy. "Don't worry, it shouldn't be too much longer. You just hang in there, okay? I'm going to go talk to the doctor for a few minutes. You try to relax and I'll be right back"
Shannon nodded her head. It had been two hours since her water broke, and the doctor said things were moving along quickly, especially for a first baby. Not nearly quickly enough as far as she was concerned. Everything she'd learned in Lamaze class threatened to go right out the window with each contraction. This was NOT a beautiful experience. This hurt like hell. She laid there knowing this wasn't even the worst of it yet, wondering how women who had gone through this once would even consider doing it again. She hoped this little boy didn't mind being an only child.
She had given up asking if Johnny had shown up. The doctor and the nurses had gone out of their way to stay with her and keep her occupied so she didn't think about his absence too much. Shannon bit down on her lower lip and squeezed her eyes closed as another contraction began. It was a short one, and as it eased, the tears began again. She didn't know whether to hate him or just forget him.
Shannon turned her head toward the wall and tried to wipe away the tears when she heard the nurse come back in the room. "The doctor's going to be in to see you in just a few minutes," she said softly, "until then, I brought you something to hold onto when the next contraction comes, okay?"
She would know the hand that slipped into hers anywhere.
With his other hand, he turned her face toward his and kissed her softly on the lips. He let go of her hand and cradled her face gently in both of his, wiping the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs, and put his forehead to hers.
"I'm so sorry, Shannon," Johnny whispered, "I love you."
She wasn't sure if she wanted to cry tears of joy, or to tell him to go to hell. There wasn't time to make a decision. The contraction was a hard one and a long one. Shannon did what any woman in hard labor would do at this point. She breathlessly called him a sonofabitch and told him he would never touch her again, then grabbed his hand and squeezed so hard he thought she was going to dislocate his thumb. Johnny flinched, but was smart enough to know not to say a word if he wanted to live to see his son born.
Just as the contraction eased, the nurse came back in with the doctor. Shannon relaxed her grip on Johnny's hand, but didn't let go. Understanding now that she'd been in labor since she woke up this morning, Shannon was totally focused on getting this over with.
An hour later they were finally in the delivery room. Johnny sat on a stool by the head of the bed and did exactly what he was supposed to do. He talked to her quietly and held onto her hand between pushes, and helped support her back when it was time to push.
Johnny had witnessed countless deliveries and had ushered babies into the world himself, but he was completely unprepared for the powerful emotions that engulfed him when they laid a crying, wrinkled baby boy in Shannon's arms. He’d never seen her look so enraptured. Watching her face as she calmed her newborn son, Johnny felt like he was still on the outside looking in. He knew it was no one's fault but his own. Mixed with his elation over the birth of his son was remorse for the terrible accusation he'd made the night before. Johnny felt the doctor touch his shoulder and ask if he was okay. All he could do was nod.
"Mr. Gage?" One of the nurses was trying to get his attention. "Mr. Gage... would you like to come with us? We're going to go take his vitals, and give this little fellow a warm bath. You're welcome to come watch."
Shannon allowed the nurse to take the baby from her arms, then laid her head back tiredly on the pillow. Johnny looked at her, wondering if he should stay to help her through the rest, or go with the nurse.
"Don't worry... we'll take good care of her and we’ll have her back in her room in a little while." The nurse was pulling on his elbow, not sure he was altogether with her. "It's better you come with us and let her rest for a bit."
He stood up and kissed Shannon on her forehead and swept her sweaty hair away from her face. She smiled at him and told him what he wanted and needed to hear.
"I love you, Johnny Gage."
"I don't deserve it," he told her quietly, "but I love you too."
He followed the nurse -- and his newborn son -- out of the room.
Johnny leaned his shoulder against the wall, and watched in quiet fascination as they measured him and weighed him. Twenty inches long and 8 pounds, 7 ounces. The obstetrician came in and checked him over carefully while the nurse recorded the details. Their smiles told Johnny everything was fine. Sean fussed and waved his crinkled little arms in protest when they bathed him, but calmed down once he was finally wrapped snugly in a powder blue blanket and a soft cotton cap pulled over his head full of dark hair. Another nurse stepped in the room to take him to the nursery.
"Shannon will be back in her room in about twenty minutes," she said to Johnny. "We'll let her rest for a while and then we'll bring this little guy in to spend some time with her. You can wait for her in her room if you'd like."
Johnny never took his eyes off the little bundle in her arms. "Um... I've got some phone calls to make first." He looked up at the nurse. "Do you think I could...?"
She smiled knowingly. "I think we can let you hold him for a few minutes. Maybe you'd better sit down first, though. There's a chair right over there. Make yourself comfortable."
He hobbled over to the chair against the other wall. Johnny regretted running this morning. He regretted everything that had happened last night and earlier today with Jill. Hell, he regretted everything that happened in the last six months. He had been so blind to what was right in front of him the whole time. "Stupid"' was the word Jennifer said Roy had used.
All the regrets disappeared into thin air like a wisp of smoke when she rested the baby in his waiting arms. Johnny thought Sean looked just like Shannon, but he could see himself in his features too. The new father ran a finger slowly across his son's downy-soft cheek, and watched as the tiny face alternately contorted and relaxed as he slept, squirming inside the blanket.
The nurse reached out to take him back. Johnny held him up to her, kissing his son lightly on the nose first.
He had fallen completely, hopelessly in love with this amazing little person.
Johnny made phone calls. To Roy and Joanne. To Dixie. To Hank Stanley. To Sheila. To Rick Wilson. There were others who would want to know, but it had taken almost an hour to make those calls, and he decided the rest could wait until later. He needed to see Shannon. He wanted to thank her for waiting for him for so long. He wanted to thank her for loving him and giving him a son.
He wanted to tell her how sorry he was for everything he'd said and done.
She was sleeping when he walked into the room. He thought Shannon looked more beautiful than he'd ever seen her look before. Johnny sat down in the chair next to the bed and waited for her to wake up.
That was a switch.
He closed his eyes and remembered the temptation of Jill's wanton seduction this morning. For a split-second he had considered it. She had gotten angry when he pushed her away. She was furious at the look of shock on his face, and called him a fool, among other things.
"You sure haven't been acting like a man who gives a shit about the woman who's about to have your baby, Johnny. And you sure as shit haven't been acting like a man who's ready to be a father. You can't have it both ways. You either love her or you don't. You either want to be a father or you don't. It's as simple as that. It's time you made up your mind."
She had walked off and left him sitting alone on the hill, oblivious to the pouring rain that drenched his hair and his clothes. He had been a fool not to see where she was leading him. He had been a fool to listen to her. Everything she had said this morning was true -- and it was time to make up his mind. Johnny was surprised at how easy it was to do. It was as simple as that.
He had pulled on his sweats over his wet running clothes and had driven around in his truck with the heater on for hours, wanting to go home, but afraid to. If Shannon had left him again... and he wouldn't blame her if she had... it would've been the end of his world.
When he finally ran out of circles to drive in, he went home and found the house quiet and empty, assuming his worst nightmare had come true. She had gone, and with her, their son.
Johnny sat on the couch with his head in his hands, not moving, not knowing what to do. He had screwed up and lost them both. He didn't know how long someone had been pounding on the door before he heard it. Johnny wanted to ignore it, hoping whoever it was would go away, but he finally heard the shouts urgently calling him to the door. It was Tom.
All he could think of was getting to the hospital. He broke the speed limit doing it, and had barely made it in time. But he had made it.
He opened his eyes and saw Shannon watching him. Her eyes were full of questions... questions that Johnny answered the only way he knew how at the moment... with a tender kiss and a promise that he would always love her.
The nurse wheeled in the little plastic nursery bassinet, and handed the hungry, wriggling baby to his mother. As many times as she had done that, it never failed to touch her heart when she saw the look of awe on the parent's faces as they gazed upon what they had created and brought into the world. What she saw now reassured her that this small infant would have nothing but love in his life.
She quietly left the new family alone to get to know each other.
* * * * * * * *
Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong its currents;
no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place,
and this too will be swept away.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon was relishing this rare day away from her usual routine; she hadn't spent a day with Joanne in ages. She had set out to buy herself some new clothes, but of course, the bags were all filled with things for four-month old Sean, and a few things for Johnny. But none for herself. Typical.
She sat on the edge of one of the large rectangular planters that filled up space in the middle of the mall, waiting for Joanne to make her way through the long line at the cashier's desk. They were going to head to the cafe just outside the mall for lunch when she was done. Shannon people-watched for a while, then looked into the department store window across the way, her eyes drawn to a dress that called her name. She sighed and looked away. She had no reason to buy a dress like that.
Joanne finally came out of the store, shifting things in bags to make the load less cumbersome to carry. When Shannon didn't even notice she was standing there, Joanne followed her gaze into the store window.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Joanne remarked. "It looks about your size. Why don't you go try it on?"
Shannon shook her head. "No. It's probably expensive. Besides, I really wouldn't have a reason to wear it. It's not the kind of dress you'd wear just anywhere."
Nodding her head, Joanne agreed. "But you would look lovely in it."
“Not today,” she declared, convincing herself not to look again. Shannon gathered her bags and stood up with a smile on her face. "I'm starved. Let's go eat." With one more stolen glance at the dress, she pushed the thought from her mind. By the time they put the bags in the car and walked to the restaurant, she had forgotten about it.
They settled in at their table on the cafe patio. It was mid-July and the weather was warm and perfect, the late summer heat-waves of August and September waiting in the wings. The sun shone brightly and the air was smog-free, thanks to a summer breeze, unusual this far inland. Joanne and Shannon relaxed and chatted and laughed under the shade of the bright green umbrella that sprouted from the center of the table.
"So, tell me, Shannon, how is everything? We haven't seen you guys for so long, Roy and I were beginning to think you were mad at us."
The waitress brought them their iced teas and asked if they were ready to order. When she left, Shannon took a long, refreshing drink and put the glass down.
"Johnny's working the same schedule in dispatch as a field
firefighter, and I'm working 'normal' hours in the office on weekdays, so
it seems like we're doing good to say hello to each other when we pass
in the hallway. He gets to spend more time with Sean than I do. You should see him, Joanne, he's getting so big. He's sitting up by himself, and I swear he's going to be crawling before long. I've never in my life seen a baby constantly on the move like he is."
"Well, we keep telling you if you ever want a night out and need a baby-sitter, to give us a call. Jennifer is dying to help out too. She’s still talking about the weekend you had her come stay with you. She wanted to bring Sean home with her."
The waitress brought their sandwiches and fries and refilled their glasses with tea. Conversation was sporadic while they concentrated on satisfying the hearty appetites the long morning of shopping had generated.
"So...,” Joanne asked as she finished her last few bites, “how does Johnny like being back at work?" It had been almost ten months since the accident before he was able to return to light duty. He didn't like driving BCs around very much, and had eventually settled in as a temporary dispatcher.
Shannon wiped her fingers with her napkin and sat back in the chair, ready to talk now. "I don't know. He doesn't say much, but sometimes when he
talks about the calls he's dispatched, I can hear how much he misses it.
He runs and works out on his days off, but he still won't talk about
taking his physical and returning to regular duty."
"Roy said the last time he talked to Johnny, he was pretty noncommittal about his plans. If he doesn't go back, what will he do?"
"I don't really know, Joanne. I don’t know why he won’t talk about it." The plaintive expression on her face spoke volumes. The one issue that had kept her and Johnny apart all these years still lay before them, unresolved.
Joanne asked the sixty-four dollar question. "What would you like him to do?"
"I don't know that either." Shannon quietly contemplated her answer. "I can't say I wouldn't like him to have a regular 9-to-5 desk job somewhere. His being a firefighter scares me, and it always has, and I think it always will. What happened to him justifies my fears. But..., I don't know.... I've also been able to see another side of him and what he's accomplished. I know now that being a firefighter is a part of who he is, and without that part, he wouldn't be the same man that I fell in love with."
Shannon paused for a long time. "It's his decision to make, not mine. I guess I'd like him to do whatever makes him happy."
"What would make you happy, Shannon?" Joanne was sure that Johnny's decision had everything to do with Shannon, and wondered what she would do if he chose to return to duty.
Shannon's eyes softened. "I heard someone repeat a quote at work the other day that made me stop and think about things. They said 'you can pile up a lot of tomorrows and still have nothing but empty yesterdays.' I've wasted a lot of time I could have spent with him waiting for things to change, and I have nothing to show for it but those empty yesterdays. The only thing that I want now is to spend today with him, and let tomorrow worry about itself. That would make me happy."
"You have to tell him that," Joanne softly urged.
She shook her head. "I don't think he'll believe me if I'm the one to bring it up. I don't want to influence his decision one way or the other. If he wants to know how I feel, he can ask. But, I think there's something more holding him back that has nothing to do with me, and when he figures that out, maybe he'll talk about the rest of it."
They both picked at their french fries in silence. Joanne thought Shannon had matured a great deal, and hoped that Johnny would finally find a way to trust her again with his heart.
Shannon shook off the melancholy mood that had invaded their day.
"The good news is that work is one of the very few things that he won't talk about any more. Things have been... better," she reported happily. "Once Johnny started talking with Rick Wilson again, he’s come a long way. We've even gone to see Rick together a few times. In some ways, he reminds me of my father when I was little. Johnny doesn't like to hear me say that, because he didn't like my dad, but he didn't know what he was like before my mom got sick."
"I know what you mean about Rick. Roy really respects him. And, I'm glad to hear that Johnny’s taken that step, Shannon. We were really worried for a while." Joanne smiled at the waitress as she took their dishes away. "You’ve both been through so much.... It's good to know you're starting to put all that behind you."
"It hasn't been easy, but we're making a real effort to talk honestly about things. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but we sort of circle dates on the calendar, and no matter how tired we are, we take time to sit down together and just talk. It was Rick's idea, and it's really worked." Shannon smiled a little woefully. "I'm beginning to think maybe we should do the same thing in the bedroom... you know, finally make a date and keep it."
Joanne noticed Shannon turned a slight shade of pink at her admission. "No time for the fun stuff, huh?" she teased.
"No time, no energy." She sighed heavily. "Well, I always wanted to know if we could have a permanent relationship outside the bedroom.... I just never expected it to exclude one inside."
Joanne reached over and patted her hand. "Give it time, it'll happen. You can't plan these things. It just wouldn't be right."
Shannon giggled a little. "I'll take it anyway I can get it right now, planned or not." They both thought that was pretty funny. If their men only knew what they talked about. It wasn't all about kids and clothes.
Joanne turned curious for a minute. "I don't want to pry, but can I take it you and Johnny haven't talked about getting married?"
She saw the wistful look in Shannon's eyes. "No. But..., I'm happy with the way things are going right now. Johnny still needs some time to decide what he's going to do about work. There seems to be something else on his mind these days, but I can't press him to tell me everything at once. I'll just wait," she laughed. "Remember, it's what I do so well."
The waitress left the check and Joanne reached for it. "My treat. You ready to tackle the other half of the mall now?"
"I'm ready if you are," Shannon answered cheerfully. "You think we could take one more look at that dress before we leave?"
She finally decided to try on some summer clothes, and was delighted to find that she fit back into her pre-pregnancy size 6, and eagerly picked out more things to try on. While Shannon was busy doing that, Joanne went to the kids clothing store next door. Jennifer was growing like a weed, and seemed like she needed something new to wear every week.
By the time they met up again, they'd exhausted both their budgets and their energy. When they walked back to the other side of the mall to look in the store window, the dress was gone.
Disappointment cast a shadow over her face, but she assured Joanne it was no big deal. Joanne knew better. The simple, cream-colored, lace-covered, elegant dress wasn’t really a wedding gown, but Joanne could just picture how beautiful Shannon would look in it. It was too bad it was gone.
But like Shannon said again, she really didn't have a reason to wear it.
* * * * * * * *
"John! Good to see you."
Johnny was putting the key in the door of the truck to unlock it. He'd just gotten off work. The morning sun was already baking the asphalt-covered parking lot, and he squinted in the bright light to see Rick Wilson getting out of the car across the aisle.
"Mornin', Rick," he answered back. "Haven't seen you in a few weeks. How was the vacation?"
He walked over and shook Johnny's hand. "Couldn't have been better. My wife's folks live just outside Portland, along the Columbia River. It's beautiful country. I think I might like to retire there one of these days."
"I've been there once. It's pretty all right. I don't think I could live with the rain and the cold weather in the winter, though. These old bones of mine couldn't take it," he said jokingly. "I think I'll be staying right here the rest of my life."
Rick looked at his watch. "I don't have anything on my schedule for about an hour. You want to get a cup of coffee before you go?"
Johnny locked the truck again. "Sure, sounds good to me." They walked up the road toward the training center and its outdoor patio.
"You look good, John. I don't even notice a limp anymore. How's the leg coming along?"
"It feels real good most of the time. The doctors say it'll probably always hurt some when I do too much, but that it shouldn't keep me from... from going back to work... if I want."
"I take it you still haven't made a decision? I know you're running out of time. Have you taken your physical yet?"
Johnny shook his head as they went through the door. "I have an appointment, but haven't decided if I'll keep it yet."
They got their coffee and went out onto the patio and sat at the picnic table. It had been almost a year since Johnny and Roy had sat there with their new captain's badges pinned on their coats and reminisced about their years as partners. They had talked about the close calls they'd had during their careers as rescue men and paramedics. None of those had compared to the close call he'd had only a week later.
"John?" Rick had watched him carefully. "What's on your mind these days?"
"Same things as always, I suppose." Johnny idly scanned the radio towers, knowing it was time he finally confessed his fears to someone.
"Ready to talk about it yet?"
Johnny drew in a deep breath, and turned to face him.
"I don't know what to do. Part of me wants to go back to work so bad I can taste it. But the stakes are higher this time. I'm not the world's best card player, you know." Johnny grinned, remembering how many times he got stuck doing dishes. He was pretty sure Kelly cheated, but he'd never been able to prove it.
"What stakes are those, John?”
"I have responsibilities now that I didn't have before. I have a kid to think about." Rick saw Johnny's eyes light up at the mention of Sean. "I have to think about what's best for him. My decisions don't just affect me anymore."
"That's commendable, John, but a lot of firefighters have families. Happy families. Roy's a perfect example of that, and I can name hundreds more. I understand what you're saying, but it sounds to me like you're using it as an excuse for something else." Rick waited patiently as he watched Johnny's internal wrestle with the truth.
"There’s two things, I guess," he finally managed to admit. "I'm worried I've lost my nerve. I honestly don't know if I'll ever be the same. You know, Rick, I've been scared and I’ve been injured before, but it was never anything I gave a second thought to when it was all over. At least not until Chet died. Man, I still remember working on him until they pulled me away. I didn't want to believe he was gone."
"I seem to recall you were pretty angry with him."
"Yeah, well, I owed him one for his latest prank. He never gave me a chance to pay him back." Johnny had a slight smile for the memory. "And, I had it all figured out, too. He'd have never known what hit him." Johnny sobered. "I hope he didn't know what hit him. I hope it was over before he knew."
"Why do say that, John?"
"Because when I stood in the warehouse that day -- I knew what was going to happen to me. My life really did kinda flash in front of my eyes. It was like time stood still for a minute. It wasn't a pleasant minute, Rick."
"Are you still having nightmares about it?"
Johnny shifted uncomfortably on the bench. It had been hard to talk about them. "Not as often anymore. But all it takes is one to remind me that I don't want to go through that experience again."
"Nothing says you will go through that again, although the potential is always there in this line of work. I guess you'll never know what you can do until you have to face it again. None of us do, John. You're human just like the rest of us. We all have our doubts. But if we let those doubts keep us from doing the things we love, then we've lost something of ourselves. Think of the things that would've never been accomplished if people were afraid to take risks."
"I could be risking someone else's life if I freeze. I couldn't live with that either."
"Or..., you could save someone else's life by being there." Rick countered. "It's what you've done all your life. You need to think about what you can still contribute, not about what you can't."
Rick could see he had made a point on that issue, and decided to let Johnny think it over on his own.
"You said there were two things, John. What's the other?" This one, Rick Wilson was sure he knew about, but until Johnny brought it out in the open, he couldn't help.
When Johnny didn't answer, he asked simply, "Have you talked to her about it?"
Johnny shook his head. "It's not her decision to make. It's mine."
"John, if you want to share your life with Shannon, it means sharing the important decisions. All of them..., not just the ones you choose. It's what makes a relationship strong. You must care about what she thinks, or you
wouldn't be having such a hard time making up your mind."
Johnny just toyed with his coffee cup and said nothing.
"Do you think she'll try to make you choose between her and your job again?"
"She's never asked me to choose."
"Maybe not in so many words, but she has, and I think you know it." Rick decided it was time to ask the question. "Are you afraid she'll leave you if you decide to go back to work?"
"She's done it before."
"I won't presume to speak for Shannon, but I know she's said that she regrets that. I know she loves you. I can see it in her face and hear it in her voice whenever she talks about you."
"She's said that before too."
"John, it sounds to me like you haven't forgiven her for what you see as a betrayal of your trust. It seems kind of strange... you don't strike me as the kind of man to hang onto your anger for long. Why do you think you're having trouble with it this time?"
Johnny just shrugged and shook his head. "I'd like to start over. But I don't know how."
Glancing at his watch, Rick got up from the table. "I'm sorry, but I've got an appointment waiting. Come see me soon, and we'll talk again."
"Yeah, I'll do that. Thanks."
Rick tossed the Styrofoam cup in the trash, then rested a hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave him a piece of advice. "Sometimes, John, the only way to start over is at the beginning." He patted his shoulder and left.
Johnny sat there for another five minutes, then got up and slowly walked to his truck. Rick Wilson had been right. The time had come for him to go back and face the past.
Maybe then, he could finally find a way to face the future.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon pulled the car into the driveway and made no move to get out for a few minutes after turning the ignition off. She was late, and hoped Johnny had already fed and bathed Sean and put him to bed. Though tired from a long day, she wanted to spend some quiet time talking to Johnny before he left for work -- even though it wasn't circled on the calendar. She and Johnny both seemed to suffer from the lack of spontaneity in their lives. Everything had fallen into such a routine, with schedules to be organized and appointments to be kept. By the time the day was done, Shannon was ready to fall asleep, while Johnny had to leave for work.
His truck was in the driveway and he had called to say that he had picked up Sean from Mrs. Henderson's early in the day, but all was quiet when she stepped into the front hallway. The evening breeze that drifted in through the open windows made the house comfortable even in the middle of a heat-wave. Shannon kicked off her shoes and went looking for Johnny and Sean. They were fast asleep on the den couch. Sean was laying on his stomach on Johnny's chest, with his father's arms wrapped gently around him. Shannon made herself comfortable in the overstuffed chair across from them and smiled at the sight. It wasn't often that either one of them was so still.
Sensing her presence, Johnny opened his eyes and said hello very quietly. "He's all ready for bed, if you wanna put him down for the night."
Sean squirmed a little when she picked him up, but quickly settled his head on her shoulder and fell back into a peaceful slumber. She put him to bed, and kissed him goodnight, then joined Johnny on the sofa.
"So, what did you two do today?" she asked as she stretched her legs out on the coffee table.
"Just guy things." He dodged the dubious look she gave him.
"Uh-huh. Just what kind of 'guy things' does a grown man and his five-month old son do?"
"You wouldn't understand. You’d have to be a guy to know what I mean." He was teasing her, and she smacked his arm good-naturedly with the back of her hand.
Johnny easily pushed her over and they wrestled playfully for a moment, when he suddenly kissed her like he hadn't kissed her in a long, long time. Shannon felt a sudden heat-wave of her own coming on, only to have him pull away and stand up, leaving her clutching the couch and groaning to herself in frustration.
He stood by the patio door, looking out across the deck and the back yard. Sitting up when she heard him sigh heavily, Shannon was surprised by the serious countenance he wore.
"Johnny, what's wrong?" she questioned, puzzled by the dramatic about-face in his mood.
"Nothin' really. I... uh... when I get off work in the morning, I'm going to drive out to visit my aunt and uncle in Palmdale. I think I'll be spending the night there, too."
Shannon was taken aback by his sudden announcement. "Is there any particular reason you're going now? You know, I'd love to meet your aunt and uncle one of these days. When I talked to her on the phone a few weeks ago, she said she was dying to for all of us to come visit so they could see Sean. Can't this wait until we can go too?"
Johnny looked at her and shook his head. "No..., not this time. I've got some... personal business... to take care of. We'll all go another time."
He saw she was a little wounded, thinking he was still shutting her out. Johnny pulled her off the couch and into a hug and stroked her hair. "I’m sorry, Shannon. This is just something I have to do by myself. I promise I'll tell you about it sometime. Please understand. It really doesn’t have anything to do with us."
He kissed her again until Shannon thought she would melt under the heat of his touch. She was about to drag him to the floor and tear his clothes off, but when their lips finally separated, Johnny instead declared he had to get ready to leave for work early and left the room. When he came back to say good-bye, her feet were still glued to the same spot on the floor where he'd left her standing, confused and exasperated.
She couldn't understand how he could turn it on and off like a hot and cold water faucet. She mumbled a good-bye and told him to drive carefully. Hearing his truck pull out of the driveway, she pulled herself together and went into the kitchen to look for something to eat. She opened the door to the refrigerator, then closed it again when something caught her eye. They kept a calendar on the front of the door, and she noticed that someone -- presumably Johnny, since it hadn't been her -- had drawn large red circles around next week's Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She could not remember him mentioning anything, and thought to ask him about it when he called.
Shannon made a sandwich, and wondered what it was that he had to do by himself.
She wondered what the circles on the calendar were for.
* * * * * * * *
The closer he got, the less sure he was about his reason for going. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Johnny remembered what he had told Rick Wilson once about where he grew up -- that it wasn’t far from LA, but that it was worlds apart. It still was. He thought it ironic that ten years could change everything and change nothing at the same time.
Edwards Air Force Base and the aerospace plants drew more people and added more housing tracts to the area, but once leaving the outskirts of Lancaster, the landscape reverted back to its virgin state and looked as it had for hundreds of years. Desolate. Hot. Dry. High winds that whipped so much dust in the air, you couldn't see fifty feet in front of you. It didn't matter, though, because there was nothing to see but dirt and rocks and Joshua trees for miles in every direction. In winter, freezing snows occasionally closed the main highway, the lifeline to nearby valleys of Los Angeles and the land of mild temperatures and ocean breezes. The high desert of Southern California was a harsh and unchanging land.
It had been his home for almost eighteen years.
A few farms and ranches still showed some signs of life. Alfalfa sprouted from the occasional irrigated field. Small herds of cattle still roamed the rocky hillsides. Dilapidated houses, many abandoned long ago, tattered old trailers, and groups of rusted cars and pickup trucks randomly littered the view along the road.
The road to nowhere they used to call it.
Johnny was unable to remember if it had always looked this way and he never really noticed, or if this had all been left behind in the wake of the mass migration off the reservation over the last decade. His parent's small house had always been neat and well-kept, but it was gone now, and the land around it sat empty and idle. His aunt and uncle had moved to Palmdale not long after he'd left, and there had been no reason to come back again. Until now.
The years rolled back in his memory as the miles rushed by under his wheels. He and Tommy Vasquez had often been referred to as the ‘Dynamic Duo’ when they were kids. Their moms had been best friends, and Johnny and Tommy had grown up together, closer than brothers. Up until high school, they’d been virtually inseparable. Mischief was their common middle name and by the time they were fourteen, they’d shared a lot of first times -- first ‘borrowed’ cars, first smokes, first drinks, first girls.
Things started to change when Johnny went to high school in the city, and Tommy dropped out of school altogether. Their lives had begun to go in different directions, but they still hung out whenever Johnny had the time, and their friendship had remained intact. In just one night, all that changed. Tommy had spent a month in the hospital after the accident that claimed the lives of Johnny’s parents, and Johnny never once went to visit him. He never saw him again, and Johnny never forgave him for what he did.
Rick Wilson had questioned his inability to forgive Shannon for betraying his trust, and when he suggested that Johnny start over at the beginning, this seemed like the right place to do that. He’d thought that if he could face Tommy and find a way to forgive him, perhaps he could do the same with Shannon. Outside of his family and Roy, Tommy and Shannon were the two people Johnny had trusted most and been closest to in his life, and both had hurt him badly.
As he pulled up and stopped in front of the store, he hesitated before turning off the engine, not sure he could do this after all. He had come looking for answers, but felt like he’d forgotten the questions.
Never really a town, this had served as the center of the reservation in its day. The school building where his mother had taught was now boarded up and falling apart. The church still held Sunday Mass, the clinic was open twice a month, and only the store remained open daily. In the heat of the day, the place now looked deserted, except for a few lizards and one man about to try to come to terms with his past.
The store wasn’t any different, just more run down. It once served as the local post office, and in the back was a meeting hall. It had been a lively gathering point for the locals, especially on Saturday nights. Several beat-up, old kids bikes lay in front of the door, and he walked around them and stepped inside. Basic groceries, hardware items, and household wares lined the shelves.
Johnny’s eyes took a minute to adjust from the bright outdoor sunshine. The lighting inside was poor and the old overhead fans provided no relief from the stifling heat. In the corner of the former post office sat an old oak desk, and Johnny smiled when he recognized the woman who sat in the chair behind it. She hadn’t heard him come in.
“Sarah?” he called quietly, and she looked up in surprise.
“Johnny? Oh my god, Johnny, it is you!” She got up so quickly the chair almost fell backwards and she rushed into his open arms.
She hugged him, and stood back, then excitedly hugged him again. “I don’t believe this. What are you doing here? It’s been so long. How are you?” Sarah gave him an appreciative once-over while rattling off her questions. She liked what she saw.
“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you I was just passing through...?” Johnny smiled fondly at Sarah, thinking to himself that she looked far older than her twenty-eight years, but that she still had the most beautiful eyes he’d ever looked into.
“Not for a minute,” she laughed. “You know, I haven’t seen your aunt in over a year. The last time I talked to her, she said you were still single and living the good life in LA. I thought for sure some girl would’ve snagged you by now. You ever think about settling down, Johnny?”
“Maybe one of these days.... I hear you and Tommy have a couple of kids now. I always knew you’d make a great mom.”
Sarah smiled brightly. “We have three. Two boys and a girl. I wish you could meet them, but they’re all in school today.” She quieted down and furrowed her eyebrows. “Why are you here?”
“I’m having dinner with Maggie and Joe tonight and driving home in the morning. Since I was out this way I... I....” He stopped, realizing had no reason to lie or make up an excuse. “No, that’s not right, Sarah. I actually came to see Tommy. Is he around?”
Sarah shot a furtive glance toward the back of the store, then looked at Johnny again. Her sudden nervousness fueled his own.
“I don’t know if your coming here is such a good idea, Johnny. I mean.... It’s been a lot of years, and some things are better off forgotten. Tommy’s not... Tommy’s not the same person we knew when we were kids. He suffered a lot after the accident and there are some things he’s never gotten over.” Sarah cast her eyes downward. “He hates you, Johnny.”
“He hates me?” Johnny couldn’t believe his ears.
“I know this is hard for you to understand, but he blames you for everything that’s gone wrong in his life. He’s a bitter man, Johnny. It’s not your fault, but a lot’s happened since you left and I think it’d be better for both of you if you’d just go now. I don’t know why you wanted to see him, but trust me, he doesn’t want to see you.” Sarah looked sadly at Johnny. He always had been the optimistic one, and she sensed he had come here to finally make things right, only to be told it had been a wasted trip.
Sarah put her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. Johnny wrapped his arms around her and they shared a long embrace.
“So, you still can’t keep your hands off my woman, huh, Gage?” The angry, sarcastic voice from behind startled them both, and Sarah pulled from his arms. “What’s the matter...? You can’t find a white woman who knows how to satisfy you?”
“Tommy!” Sarah's voice wavered in shock.“Johnny was just leaving. Weren’t you, Johnny?” Her eyes pleaded with him to go.
Johnny’s back stiffened and he turned around to look at the man in the wheelchair, barely recognizing him. Their eyes met coldly. Johnny caught sight of the gun not so discreetly tucked behind Tommy’s back.
“Leaving? Why you just got here, didn’t you? I don’t imagine you drove all the way out here for the first time in ten years just to turn around and leave?” Tommy expertly guided the wheelchair around them over to the desk and opened a drawer, pulling out a bottle and waving it in the air. “Or then again..., maybe you did. Why don’t you stay and have a drink for old times sake?”
“No thanks. I think Sarah’s right. It’s time for me to go.” Johnny turned to leave, knowing Sarah was right.... This had been bad idea.
“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’ve given up drinking, Gage?” Tommy’s voice was taunting him. “Why, I remember you used to brag that if you had the chance, you could drink your old man under the table. Too bad you never got to try. It would’ve been fun to watch.”
A cold chill passed through Johnny as he wheeled back around. “I was a dumb kid then. I pick my time and place now.... And, it’s not before I get behind the wheel of a car.”
Tommy didn’t even let that comment phase him. “So, when you do indulge, what kind of drinker are you these days? Some of us drink to remember and some of us drink to forget -- which is it you do?”
Johnny stood stock still, his jaw set in anger.
“Yeah, I thought so.” Tommy unscrewed the lid and took a long drink. It wasn’t his first of the day. “You bury yourself in a bottle when you want to forget. It’s just another way of walkin’ away from things. You’re good at that, Gage. Turnin’ your back. Done it all your life. Me.... I drink to remember. It’s good to remember who you are and where you came from.”
“Tommy, don’t do this. Please.” Sarah tried to take the bottle, but he held it close and roughly pushed her away.
Johnny caught her as she stumbled, and kept his arm protectively around her shoulder.
Tommy laughed drunkenly. “You always were the gentlemen, weren’t you? Had all the girls eating outta your hand.” Tommy grabbed Sarah by the wrist and yanked her to his side. “You had her once, but she’s mine now. You wanna know a secret? Women never forget their first lay. Where was it you two did it -- in the back seat of her father’s car? And, guess what, Sarah. Gentleman John here never even bragged about it.”
Sarah was mortified by Tommy’s behavior and urged Johnny to leave again before things got out of hand and someone got hurt.
Johnny hadn't been prepared for this kind of confrontation, but he wasn't going to back down from it. “You’re hurting her. Let her go, Tommy. This isn’t about Sarah. It’s about us.”
Tommy looked menacingly at Sarah, but dropped her hand and told her to get out of his sight. She backed away, but didn’t leave the room.
Circling his wheelchair around Johnny, Tommy finally stopped when it didn’t appear he was going to intimidate him. “You haven’t changed much,” Tommy sneered. “You always did have more guts than most of us put together. More brains, too. You had it all.... Looks, charm... rich white family to buy you things.
Johnny tried to keep his anger in check. “My grandparents weren’t rich. They worked hard for everything they had. I don’t remember hearing you complain when you went with me to their house on weekends. They treated you like one of their own.”
“I was a dumb kid then.” Tommy mimicked Johnny’s earlier comment. “Man, I used to think you were really something special. I didn’t know then what I know now. I know you don’t belong here and you never did. No wonder your old man was disappointed with you. Maybe he’s better off not seeing what you’ve become.... Look at you... you’re no more Indian than the man in the moon.”
Johnny had grown up with one foot in both worlds -- while never denying his heritage, he had made a choice a long time ago. For him, it hadn’t been a choice between two peoples -- it had been a choice to find a different life than what the reservation had to offer. He’d found a job he loved, friends he cherished, and a woman who owned his heart and soul. Johnny had no regrets.
“I didn’t come here to talk about white men and Indians. I came here to talk to you about the accident and see if there was some way I could put it behind me once and for all. I think I found my answer. And, now I’ll be going.” Johnny started to leave, but Tommy blocked his path.
“Your father was drunk that night too.”
The police report had confirmed that. “He wasn’t the one driving with his lights out on the wrong side of the road. It was your fault, Tommy. You killed my parents and you never even said you were sorry.” Johnny’s fists were clenched to hide how hard they were shaking.
“I was laying in a hospital ward, not knowing if I was ever going to be able to use my arms or legs again.” Tommy’s rage simmered on his face. “You wouldn’t know what that felt like, Gage... you wouldn’t know what I went through. You never came to see me. You turned your back and acted like I never existed. And then you just left. You never cared about me and you never cared about this reservation or the people who were your parent’s friends. All you cared about was John Gage, and making it in the white man’s world. It was so easy for you to leave. Some of us never got that chance.”
Johnny was amazed. He didn’t feel any hatred toward Tommy. He didn’t even feel pity. He didn’t feel anything at all. He looked sadly at Sarah and walked around the wheelchair toward the front of the store. When he reached the door, he stopped, but didn’t turn around when he spoke.
“We all have to do what we have to do, Tommy. Maybe I didn’t do things the right way, but I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning and know I did the best I could. Can you?”
Johnny walked out the door to his truck, not seeing the gun that had been pointed in his direction.
He drove away and never looked back.
* * * * * * * *
“You shouldn’t have gone out there alone, John.” His Uncle Joe was shaking his head. “I wish you would’ve told me you were going to see Tommy. He’s playing a dangerous game these days with the FBI. They’ve raided the store more than once. They’ve never found anything, but they think he’s been hiding guns for the movement.”
"I thought that was over with years ago," Johnny said quietly. "I guess I haven't paid much attention to what's gone on lately. Maybe Tommy was right. Maybe I did turn my back on things when I left. You know we never talked much at home about who was Indian and who was white. It didn't seem that important at the time. My mom and dad were just people trying to make a life for me and themselves, and I honestly don't know that I thought twice about it the whole time I was growing up. I just knew that I didn't want to stay there the rest of my life... but a lot of people feel that way about where they grow up."
Maggie passed him the bowl of mashed potatoes and watched as he scooped them onto his plate. "I'd hate to think what you might've become if you'd stayed. A drunken radical like Tommy? He's not even thirty years old and he's been a bitter old man for years. If he keeps going the way he is, he'll be dead before his next birthday. If the bottle doesn't kill him, a bullet just might. Johnny, you made the only decision you could and don't you ever doubt yourself."
Johnny smiled at his Aunt Maggie's emphatic support. "What about Sarah and the kids?" he wondered out loud.
"Sarah's a lot stronger than she looks," Joe answered between mouthfuls of sweet corn. "She made her choice too, and it's to stay with him, even though it's risky. She knows how to take care herself and those kids. They'll be all right."
Maggie shook her finger at Johnny just like she always used to when he'd been in trouble and she was giving him advice. "I know what your mother would be telling you right now if she were here. She'd tell you to only remember the good things about the past, forgive those who've done you wrong, find a good woman to love and grow old with, and have a dozen children."
"A dozen?" he asked, his eyes opening wide in mock terror. "I've barely gotten used to having one."
She laughed. "Well, after that, it just gets easier. But first, you gotta marry that girl. Good lord, son, just watching your face while you talk about her, it's obvious she's the one for you. Remember what your mama always said...."
"I know, when I find a woman who can put up with me...." Johnny could almost hear her now. His mother was a smart woman. Maybe it was time he listened.
They finished dinner and had dessert and talked well into the evening. Johnny invited them to come to LA next month for Shannon's birthday, and they readily accepted. It was getting late and they finally said their goodnights.
Johnny was about to pick up the phone and call Shannon before he went to sleep when he heard a soft tap on the bedroom door. His aunt was standing there when he opened the door, holding an old cardboard box in her arms.
"I hope I didn't disturb you, Johnny."
"Not at all. I was just gonna call Shannon and make sure everything's okay at home, but that can wait. Can I take the box for you?" She gladly handed over the brown carton that had been well-sealed with tape, but by its faded and worn condition, Johnny could tell it had been sitting somewhere gathering dust for a long while.
"Just put it on the bed for a minute." Maggie sat down on the bed beside it and ran her fingers over the top. Johnny watched her intently when her eyes took on a faraway look for a minute.
"Maggie... what's in the box?" he asked gently.
She looked up at him, her own eyes full of curiosity. "I'm not exactly sure, Johnny. Your grandfather brought it here not too long after your grandmother passed away. He had it all taped up like you see it, and I've never opened it. It's for you. I think maybe it's something that belonged to your mother."
Johnny was speechless. He had always assumed his mother's sisters had kept everything, and that he'd never have anything that belonged to her. That's why the carousel music box meant so much to him -- it was the only thing of hers that he owned, and she'd never even seen it.
"Why did he give it to you?" Johnny asked, then realized how rudely that came out. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it to sound that way. I just wondered why he didn’t give it to me. He never even told me about it."
Maggie nodded in understanding. "He said that you were so determined to leave the Rez and put your life behind you, that he didn't think you'd be able to appreciate it. He was right, you know,” she added sadly, “you couldn't wait to leave and forget the past and start all over somewhere else."
"I had to, Maggie. I couldn't stay after what happened." He sat down on the bed next to her and rubbed his forehead, trying to push the picture of that night and all that followed from his mind.
Maggie reached out and touched his cheek with her fingertips when she saw he still carried the guilt and pain of his decision to go. "Forget what Tommy said. No one blames you, Johnny. I think we all knew from the day you were born that reservation life wasn't for you. Lord, you were a handful, son."
That garnered a small chuckle from him. "I've been told I still am."
Maggie laughed softly too. "I have no doubt about that. As you got older, we could tell you had places to go and things to do. Things you could never do if you stayed on the Rez." Tears formed in her eyes when she recalled the day he left; she wiped at them with her apron before going on. "Your mama loved you so much. Your daddy did too, although he didn't know how to show you. You were everything he wasn't, and he didn't understand you. You were so wild and headstrong that I think you scared him sometimes. But he was proud of you, Johnny. Always remember that. My brother lived a hard life before he came here, and sometimes he lived life the hard way. But he was a kind and decent and a gentle man, and there's more of him in you than you know."
Johnny and his dad had been such opposites that they had never really gotten to know each other, something he would always regret. He silently vowed not to make the same mistake with his son.
"Anyway, when you gave your grandfather a hard time about taking your grandmother's cameo, he decided you still weren't ready to have whatever is in this box, so he brought it to me. He wanted to make sure that it was kept safe for you. He asked me to hold onto it, and said that that someday you'd show up here and I'd know that it was the right time to give it to you." Maggie smiled. "I think this is the right time. Your grandfather was a pretty wise man. He loved you a lot, Johnny."
"I know. I still miss him." Johnny confided, "I miss all of them."
Maggie gave him a long hug and got up to leave. "You don't want to stay and see what's in here?" he asked.
"No, Johnny, I think I'll leave you alone. Maybe you can show me in the morning. You have a good night's sleep, and don't forget to call Shannon and make sure that baby's doing okay."
Thanking her with a kiss on the cheek, he waited until the door closed softly behind her before reaching for the phone. He stared at the box while he talked, wanting to open it, but not sure he was ready for the unexpected memories it was already bringing to mind.
Shannon could tell he was distracted and kept the conversation brief, but just before hanging up, she remembered to ask him about the circled dates on the calendar.
Johnny asked if she could get the day off work that Friday, and told her he would explain when he got home. He could tell she was more than a little frustrated with him, but he wasn't concentrating on what she was saying. He wanted to open the box. They said goodnight, but it still took him another five minutes before he pulled out his pocket knife and began carefully cutting through the tape.
Most of the things were actually his. Things his mother had saved. His first pair of shoes. A lock of his hair. Years worth of report cards. Drawings and cards he'd given her for Christmas and birthdays and Mother's Days. A poem he'd written her when he was five. A photo album filled with photos of just him from the time he was born until he was in high school. Another album filled with photos of friends and family. Photos of him and Tommy. So much of his past that he thought he'd lost forever had all been here in a cardboard box at his aunt's, waiting for him all these years.
It was well past midnight when he finished looking through the albums, reliving memories of people and times he'd buried deep many years ago. At the bottom of the carton were two more small boxes, both sealed tightly. Johnny opened each one carefully and laid their contents on the bed and looked at them for a long time before he picked them up again. They were the two possessions his mother had treasured above all else.
At that moment, Johnny knew exactly what his mother would've wanted him to do with them.