"A REASON TO LIVE"
* * * * * * * *
Today was the big day.
Shannon managed to get the day off work so she could drive Johnny to Rampart. The hated cast would be history in a matter of hours. She was thankful there wouldn't be a repeat of the other afternoon. She had strained her back trying unsuccessfully to help him get up from the floor, but Johnny still wouldn't let her call the station. She finally called Tom to come over and help. It hadn't taken more than a minute after he got there, but she knew Johnny was more than upset. It had effectively put an end to any further conversation between them the rest of the day, and by the next morning it seemed the subject was closed once again.
His mood was good today, though. Almost too good as far as she was concerned. He must have mentioned Jill's name at least five times on the way to the hospital. Shannon was less than thrilled, but said nothing. She reasoned it was probably just a figment of her fertile imagination. She'd accepted long ago that Johnny and women had a certain attraction to each other, but when they were together, he'd always been faithful to her.
Shannon just wasn't sure they were together right now.
Kelly Brackett was waiting for them when they got to the physical therapy department. Knowing how anxious Johnny was to have the cast removed, he'd made sure in advance that they were ready for him.
"Shannon, you know this is going to take quite a while. Are you planning to stay and wait?" he asked.
She smiled and put her hand on her slightly protruding abdomen. "No, I'm going to go do a little shopping. It seems I don't fit into anything but sweat pants all of a sudden, and I don't think that's considered appropriate to wear to work. I'll come back later and pick Johnny up when he's ready. Do you know how long it'll be?"
Johnny was already grumbling about wasting time talking. Shannon was holding onto his upper arm to help steady him.
"I'd say it'll be a good four or five hours. They'll remove the cast and let him soak in a warm bath for a while. Then they'll fit him with the brace and show him how to put it on and take it off." He turned his attention to Johnny. "I'm afraid you're not going to like that brace any more than you do the cast. You might even hate it more. At least you don't have to sleep with it on, though, so you should be able to rest more comfortably."
"Doc, nothing can be worse than being in this cast. I'll take the brace any day." Johnny had seen what it looked like when he was here last for x-rays. Brackett was right, it was almost as bad as the cast. Almost.
"Oh, here is he now," Dr. Brackett said, "Phil, I'd like you to meet John Gage. Johnny, Phil's going to be your physical therapist and help you get back in shape again."
Shannon noticed the frown on his face when he asked, "Where's Jill? I thought.... Sorry, no offense Phil, but I thought Jill was...."
Johnny didn't see the smile form on Shannon's face. But he did see the once-over Phil gave Shannon and he didn't like it at all. Brackett had just been paged to emergency and was in too much of a hurry to notice any of the looks going on.
"Jill's got a pretty big case load right now," Phil answered, his eyes still lingering on Shannon, "but you'll be in good hands with me. I'm not as pretty as she is to look at, but I'll get the job done." Johnny definitely did not like this guy.
"Shannon, do you want to ride down in the elevator with me?" Brackett asked. "I think Dixie wanted to see you for a minute."
"I'd like that, Dr. Brackett. Johnny, I'll be back later. Good luck." Shannon gave him a quick peck on the cheek, trying to ignore the way her skin crawled when she caught Phil staring at her. A little voice told her she was being way too sensitive these days -- first she hadn't liked the way Jill had looked at Johnny that day, and now this. Shannon decided she was being silly. She had nothing to fear from either one of these people.
On the way down to the first floor, Brackett told Shannon that Johnny would most likely be exhausted by the time she came back to pick him up. As anxious as Johnny was for the cast to be taken off, he'd find that fitting the brace was going to cause some extremely painful movements to his very stiff joints. Brackett assured her they'd probably give him a mild sedative to help him relax before they even started cutting the cast away.
Stepping off the elevator, Brackett quickly rushed off to one of the treatment rooms down the hall. Dixie was busy at the base station handling a transmission from one of the squads in the field, so Shannon stood by the desk and waited for her. Two young paramedics came out of one of the treatment rooms talking with Mike Morton. Finishing the conversation, they headed toward the nurse’s station to pick up some supplies just as Dixie came out of the room.
"Hi, Shannon." She greeted her, then turned to the men. "Hi, guys. How's the patient?"
"Well, let's just say he isn't going to be giving his kid any more skateboarding lessons for a while. He's gonna be fine. More of a wounded ego than anything."
Dixie smiled broadly at Shannon. "Remind me to tell you about Johnny's little trip here once courtesy of a skateboard. I seem to remember there was a cactus plant involved too. He wouldn't let Roy tell us about it, but of course, we got it out of him later."
That reminded Shannon about some mention Dixie had made about the number of times Johnny had been hurt on the job. She hadn't been sure she wanted to know then, but her curiosity was aroused now. As though she could read her mind, Dixie deftly changed the subject.
"Guys, I'd like you to meet Shannon Miller. She's John Gage's girlfriend. Shannon, these two are the B-shift paramedics from Station 51-- Jay Sawyer and Tony Kingston." Dixie had taken to these two as soon as she met them. They were more like Chet and Johnny than Roy and Johnny in their personalities, always bickering in good humor, but they were good paramedics and shared the same kind of teamwork that she'd seen all those years between Roy and Johnny.
"We heard what happened to Captain Gage. How's he getting along?" Shannon smiled at Jay. She hadn't heard anyone call Johnny that. It had a nice sound to it. He also said it with a great deal of respect.
"He's doing good. As a matter of fact, he's getting the cast removed today, and he'll be starting physical therapy right away."
"Man, I'm amazed he came through that," Tony said, "from what I heard, he was... um... uh...." He was stammering now, seeing the stern looks he was getting from both Dixie and Jay.
"It's okay, Tony," Shannon quickly came to his rescue. "He's okay now and that's all that matters."
Tony flashed her a grateful smile, and looked at Dixie and his partner and shrugged an apology.
"Is he planning on going back to work?" Jay asked.
Dixie thought she would field that one. "He's still got a long way to go before he can make that decision, Jay, but if I know John Gage, he'll be back."
"I don't really know him, but I think it'd be a shame if he didn't." Jay had Tony's full agreement on that.
"Why do you think that?" Shannon quizzed. There were so many things about Johnny she had yet to learn.
"Those of us who are just starting our paramedic careers owe a lot to men like Captain Gage and Captain DeSoto. They broke a lot of ground and made things easier for the rest of us. From what I understand, there was a lot of opposition to the program when it first started, and most people thought the bill was never going to pass, or figured the Governor would veto it if it did. Rumor has it that they did something that changed Dr. Brackett's mind, and with his support, the bill passed the Assembly and got signed by the Governor all in one night."
Dixie was smiling secretively as Jay related the story. "I guess you didn't know Johnny was one of the pioneers, Shannon? In the beginning, I think they felt more like human guinea pigs. It was like working under a microscope. Fortunately, there were a lot of people who fought just as hard to support the program and get the bill passed. There was a little incident involving Roy and Johnny that landed them in a lot of hot water with a certain doctor, but in the end, it did help him see the light."
Their HT beeped. Jay and Tony grabbed their supplies and waved good-bye and jogged down the hallway. Tony called out over his shoulder, "Tell Captain Gage we said good luck."
Shannon watched them go, then said thoughtfully to Dixie. "I've already discovered that Johnny is well-liked in the fire department. It sounds like he's well-respected too. That shouldn't surprise me, I guess. It just makes me feel bad that I never took the time to find out what he really did all those years. I always looked at it like it was a job -- a dangerous job, but I'm beginning to see it's a lot bigger than that."
"Well, you were right," Dixie agreed, "It is a dangerous job. I don't think anyone knows that better than Johnny, but he always saw what he did as really important, and for him, that overrode the risks."
Shannon sighed, thinking of all the pain and suffering he'd been through, and how much more he had to face. "I wonder if he still thinks it was worth the risk."
Dixie nodded as she thought about it too. "I guess Johnny is the only one who can answer that."
The baby moved and Shannon jumped a little. "I get the feeling 'Junior' here is going to be as active as his father. I guess I'd better get going. I've got some Christmas shopping to do."
"Speaking of 'Junior,' have you picked out a name yet?"
Shannon shook her head. "I'd kind of like to name him after Johnny, but I don't know how he'd feel about that. We haven't really talked about it yet."
The buzzer over the door to the base station sounded. Dixie told Shannon she'd check on Johnny if she had a chance and told her to have fun shopping, then went back to work.
Shannon turned her attention to her latest quest.
What to get Johnny for Christmas?
* * * * * * * *
She waited impatiently for the woman behind the desk to get off the phone. The shopping trip for a Christmas present hadn't been successful, but she did manage to find some new maternity clothes for work. Around home, sweat pants would still be the order of the day.
"I'm here to pick up John Gage," she explained when the woman was finished with the call, "do you know if he's ready to go yet?"
The woman looked at the patient list on the desk. "Oh, Mr. Gage. He's the one. They took him down to the emergency room just a little while ago to get his hand looked at before he left."
"No, you must mean someone else." Shannon wondered how they could mix up patients like that. "It wasn't his hand. He got his cast taken off today and was being fitted for a body brace."
"No.” She looked again. “It was Mr. Gage. I just came on duty about a half-hour ago, so I'm not sure what happened. But it was his hand."
Still not sure they were talking about the same Mr. Gage, Shannon took the elevator down to the emergency room. Dixie and Dr. Early were standing outside Treatment Room 4 and smiled in her direction as she walked up.
"They told me upstairs that Johnny was down here and that he hurt his hand. Is he here?" she asked anxiously.
Dixie rolled her eyes a little and cocked her head in the direction of the room behind her. "He's in there. Dr. Brackett is looking at his hand right now. They should be done in a few minutes. I don't think it's anything too serious, though. He'll probably need to ice it a few more times tonight to keep the swelling down, but it should be okay."
"What happened?" Shannon relaxed a little when she heard Dixie say it wasn't serious.
Joe Early suggested they go grab a cup of coffee in the lounge and said he'd explain. Shannon passed on the coffee, but sat down at the table with them and waited to hear the story. They both had bemused smiles on their faces.
"What happened really isn't funny. It's just that Johnny manages to stir things up pretty good every now and then." Early shook his head a little and said seriously, "It seems that after they finally got the cast cut off, Phil, the physical therapist, thought he'd try bending Johnny's left knee a little to see if he had any flexibility in it. Apparently he was none-too-gentle and it must've caused excruciating pain from his knee to his hip. Johnny actually passed out on the table."
Shannon's stomach turned a little at the thought of so much pain that it would make him pass out. "Is Johnny all right?"
"They had to give him some Valium before they could move him around and fit the brace. He seems to be doing okay now."
"But, I don't understand, Dr. Early. How did he hurt his hand?"
The smiles returned to their faces as Dixie finished telling the rest of it. "Phil called for some help and then stuck some smelling salts under Johnny's nose. He made the mistake of leaning over him when Johnny came around. He landed a solid right punch to the side of Phil's face with his fist, and I guess Phil dropped like a brick. Fortunately, no one ended up with any broken bones, but I have to tell you Phil's face is a lot worse off than Johnny's hand."
Shannon recalled the way Phil had looked at her and didn't feel too badly about hearing that. She wondered if he’d hurt Johnny on purpose.
"This isn't the first time Phil's been in trouble for being too rough with a patient. It looks like maybe he won't be working here any more after this." Joe Early got up to leave. "I'm sure Johnny will be fine. He's probably ready to go by now. I'll walk you back to the treatment room if you'd like."
They came out of the lounge to see Johnny coming out of the room behind Brackett. He was in a wheelchair and looked uncomfortable and unhappy. His crutches laid at an angle across his lap, and Brackett was telling him not to use them until his hand was better. "...Risking another fall is not a good idea, Johnny."
Brackett was blocking Johnny's view of the hallway and he didn't see Shannon. Just as she was about to step around the doctor, Jill came out of the treatment room behind them. She planted her hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. He looked up at Jill and flashed her a tired smile. Shannon froze and stood there, imagining what it would feel like to let go with a good right cross of her own.
Just thinking about doing it made her feel better.
Johnny spotted Shannon when Brackett moved aside, and said hello and reintroduced her to Jill. As though she would have forgotten.
Shannon and Jill sized each other up in about two seconds flat. It was not her imagination. Shannon reached for the handles of the wheelchair, saying as lightly as possible, "Okay, troublemaker, are you ready to go home?"
He grinned at the comment. Brackett issued instructions to them both again, knowing Johnny wasn't going to pay attention to them the minute he set foot outside the hospital.
Jill stepped further into the hallway and with a haughty, fleeting glance at Shannon, said sweetly to Johnny, "I'll see you the day after tomorrow. We'll take it nice and slow at first, until you feel like you're ready for more." Shannon did a slow burn at the intentional innuendo. "I'll make up a schedule of things you can do at home, too, in between your sessions with me."
"Lookin' forward to it, Jill. I'll see you Wednesday." Johnny looked at Shannon, surprised to see she appeared to be upset. "Um..., can we go now, Shannon?"
Shannon was glad no one could read her thoughts just then.
They would not have been befitting a civilized woman in her fifth month of pregnancy.
* * * * * * * *
"Buy you a cup of coffee?"
Johnny had been so quiet on the way to Rampart, Roy wasn't sure if trying to engage him in conversation was a good idea. They had almost 45-minutes to kill before his physical therapy appointment, thanks to exceptionally light freeway traffic this morning.
Johnny was agreeable and they headed to the cafeteria. Roy got the coffee while Johnny picked out a table and arranged himself as comfortably as he could. The brace was better than the cast, but it was still rigid and confining and downright uncomfortable. As Brackett had said, its only saving grace was that he didn't have to sleep with it on.
Roy felt a little unsure how to break through the wall Johnny had put up between them. He seemed so sensitive about everything. After seven years of close friendship, Roy never imagined it would come to this. They'd talked amicably enough on the phone a number of times before Johnny came home from the hospital, but the few times Roy had been over at the house since then, Johnny's mood hadn't been conducive to friendly conversations. It almost seemed as though the real John Gage had died in that warehouse accident, and a sometimes angry, a sometimes sullen impostor had taken his place. Shannon had told Joanne how difficult he was making it to talk to him, and Roy was feeling it too.
So he was surprised when he heard Johnny grumble quietly, "She wants to name the baby after me."
"I take it you don't like that idea?"
"I thought you liked your name. What's wrong with having a son named after his father anyway?" Roy wondered why Joanne had never even considered it.
"Roy, you of all people should understand the problem with that." Johnny had a fair amount of disgust in his voice.
"John Roderick Gage. Sounds okay to me."
"You don't get it, do you? John Roderick Gage, Junior."
"That's the normal way of doing it, Johnny. I still don't see the problem." Actually Roy did see the problem, but he was enjoying listening to Johnny be Johnny for a rare moment.
"Roy. Do I have to spell it out for you? No kid of mine is going to go through life being called 'Junior' for heaven's sake."
Roy couldn't help but laugh out loud, even though it drew a dirty look.
"I'm glad you think it's funny, Pally." He practically spit out the word.
"Johnny, you know that never bothered me half as much as being called 'Junior' irritated you. Besides, I haven't called you that in years." Actually he had -- in the warehouse before they'd gotten Johnny out from under the rubble. The moment flashed in front of him and Roy sobered at the memory. Johnny didn't seem to remember the exchange.
"Just make sure you don't," Johnny warned, "and no, she won't be naming the baby after me."
"You explain why to Shannon?" Roy asked.
"No, I just told her to think of something else."
"You could've at least explained it to her. Women get kind of funny when it comes to picking names for their kids, you know? I remember Joanne and I had a hard time agreeing on middle names for the kids once we finally figured out what the first names were going to be. According to her, the whole name had to 'sing' to her. Don't ask me to explain that, I just finally went along with whatever she wanted."
Johnny fell silent and played with his coffee cup while Roy watched and waited for the rest.
"I feel like an outsider where this baby is concerned," Johnny explained quietly. "I know I haven't exactly embraced the idea of being a father yet, but still...," he hesitated.
"But still, what, Johnny?"
"I don't know, Roy." Johnny seemed to be searching carefully for the right words. "You seem to be more involved than I am. I heard Shannon and Joanne talking about your offer to paint the room and put the furniture together. I know I'm not ready to be 'Mr. Handyman' yet, but there's still time before he's born. I could do those things -- maybe with some help --if she could just wait a little while. No matter what Shannon says, sometimes it feels like she doesn't want me to be a part of it."
"It's been my experience that the father does get left out of the picture most of the time. It's all about the mom and the baby. It's just the way it is, Johnny. I'm sorry if I overstepped my bounds, though. Shannon asked, and I just assumed...."
"I know, Roy," Johnny cut him off from any further explanation. "Everyone assumes a lot where I'm concerned these days."
"Well, Johnny, maybe that's because you won't talk to anyone. How are people supposed to know what's on your mind if you don't tell them? It never used to be a problem."
"I haven't found anyone yet who'll just listen to me without telling me what I should do or what I should think or how I should feel. I want someone to let me talk without giving me advice. I didn't think that was asking too much, but I guess it is, isn't it?" The real Johnny hadn't stayed around long.
"Maybe you're right." Roy sat back, and waited for a minute for Johnny to cool down. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You can ask." Johnny's tone still had a defensive air about it.
"How do you feel about being a father? I mean, you just said you haven't exactly embraced the idea. I always thought when the time came, you'd be pretty excited about it."
"Maybe if it was a time of my own choosing, I would. But under the circumstances, it just doesn't feel right. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought I'd be married and have a steady income and be able to support a family. I mean, I know Shannon's here now, and I was going to ask her to marry me, but a lot's changed since then. I can't seem to get past the fact that she would've married someone else if I hadn't gotten hurt. I still don't know if I'm going to be able to go back to work... or if I want to. How am I supposed to take care of a family if I don't even know that I can take care of myself?"
"I don't know what to say about you and Shannon,” Roy answered truthfully. “That's something the two of you have to work out for yourselves. What I don't understand is why you keep saying you don't want to go back to work, even if you can. You loved being a firefighter. You loved being a paramedic. You were one of the best at what you did. Why would you want to give that up?"
"No, you don't understand, Roy. I've had my share of close calls over the years. So have you. Until Chet died, I never really thought about it much. Just the risks of the job, nothing more. I tell you, none of those other close calls were anything like this one. I stood there in that warehouse before those drums exploded and I knew I wasn't going to walk out of there. By the time they did blow, I'd already accepted the fact I was going to die. I did die, Roy. I did die." Johnny's voice began to choke with emotion and he had to stop.
Roy remembered that night at the hospital. He'd seen death on Johnny's face, and had accepted it, too. It had been the longest night of his life.
Johnny began again, slowly and quietly. "I don't understand why I'm still here. Why is Chet gone and I'm not? I never expected to open my eyes again, and I know I should be grateful to be alive, but for some reason, all I can do is wonder why me? Man, I don't know if I could ever walk into a burning building or an empty warehouse again and not be scared. So scared I couldn't do my job. Shannon and I used to talk about not having kids because we didn't want them growing up without a father. Now, I'm going to be a father, and I don't know if I could say good-bye to my son in the morning on my way to work, not knowing for sure that I'd ever see him again. I don't know how you do it, Roy. I don't think I can."
Roy had no easy answers, only advice. Advice he hesitated to give because of what Johnny had said earlier. He thought it was worth a shot.
"I can't pretend to know how to help you deal with any of this, Johnny. But there are people who can. Rick Wilson for one. I think you should...."
Wrong choice. Johnny eyed him coldly as he reached for the crutches. "I'm gonna be late for my appointment. I should be done around two. You can pick me up then."
"Don't say anything, Roy. Just don't say anything. Thanks for the coffee."'
Dixie had told him months ago that Johnny was making it difficult to be his friend, and urged Roy not to give up on him.
As Roy watched Johnny disappear down the hallway, he wondered if maybe Johnny had already given up on himself.
* * * * * * * *
They made quite a pair in their matching sweat pants and T-shirts -- the only clothes either one of them found comfortable any more. Even though he now had a smaller, less rigid brace to wear, Johnny still took it off in the evenings when he settled on the couch. Since he couldn't get around without the aid of both crutches yet, he begged off helping Shannon with the holiday decorating. They had agreed on a simple Christmas without fanfare and an unspoken truce had pleasantly settled in over the past few weeks.
Shannon stood back and admired her handiwork, then looked over her shoulder to where Johnny was sitting in the corner of the couch. "The tree looks really pretty, don't you think?"
"Yeah, it does. You did a nice job." Johnny had watched Shannon carefully place each ornament on the small Christmas tree for the last hour. She treated it like an artist creating a picture on a blank canvas, choosing just the right decoration for just the right spot, rearranging them all if it didn't look just right. She had saved one special ornament from each of her Christmases since she'd been born, and cherished the memory of each and every one as she hung it on the tree. Shannon fingered the blue one painted with the snowcapped Rocky Mountains for a long time before hanging it on one of the upper branches.
"I can't believe it's Christmas Eve already." Her face wore a tiny frown. "It won’t really seem like Christmas without snow, though."
"Considering you grew up in Southern California, that sounds a little funny." The weather had turned chilly and there was snow in the local mountains, and all Johnny could feel was the miserable ache in his joints that the damp winter air made worse. Christmas without snow was just fine with him.
"I know," she said, her eyes lighting up, "but for as long as I can remember, my dad and I always went up to our friend's cabin in Big Bear late on Christmas Eve, and I can't remember waking up on Christmas morning without seeing snow outside my window. And, don't forget, I've spent the last five years in Yosemite, the Rockies and the Smokies. There was more than enough snow in all those places on Christmas morning to keep me happy. I'm going to miss it this year."
As thoughts of his own of the Christmas a few years ago with Shannon filled his mind, Johnny looked longingly at her, wanting desperately to find a way back to those nights he spent with her there... nights filled with passionate lovemaking and promises that they'd always be a part of each other's lives. He remembered how they could never be in the same room without wanting to be close to each other. He hadn't felt that way in a long time.
Shannon turned off all the lights in the room except for the strands of miniature colored bulbs that glimmered softly on the tree, and added a few more logs on the fire before joining Johnny on the couch. The shadows cast by the glow of the flames from the fireplace danced around the room in perfect harmony with the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. She leaned her head against his shoulder, and he slipped his arm around her. The room was warm and quiet except for the occasional pop and crackle of the logs on the hearth. She loved the smell of a wood fire burning on a cold winter night and inhaled deeply. Shannon hadn't felt this relaxed in weeks and snuggled a little closer in his embrace. It felt good to be close to him, once again stirring memories of the way it used to be between them.... Memories of the Christmas when Johnny woke her up to tell her he loved her.... Memories of making love all night in front of the fireplace, before falling asleep in each other's arms as a new day dawned.
Shannon turned her head, and saw that he was looking at her with eyes full of the same burning desire that was coursing through her. He pulled her closer and kissed her, softly at first, but their hunger soon took charge and the kisses grew deeper and more intimate. He pulled her closer still, oblivious to any discomfort it caused him. They both became so lost in the heat of the moment, that any thought of his injuries or her pregnancy were forgotten. Suddenly nothing mattered except finding a way to satisfy their long-denied physical appetites.
Johnny shifted and pain that couldn’t be ignored flared in his hip. His arms tensed in reflex and he pushed her away and gritted his teeth until it passed. He lay his head back on the couch and closed his eyes.
"Shannon... I can't.... I can’t do this. It hurts too much." The pain hadn't dulled his aching need though.
Shannon slid onto the floor and waited for him to settle on the couch again and made sure he was comfortable. Neither one was going to be denied what they wanted.
"It doesn't have to hurt, Johnny. Just let me...." He had barely nodded his head in agreement before pleasure shot through him even more intensely than the pain had. His groans had nothing to do with broken bones and aching joints.
There are many ways to make love -- whether you’re laying flat, standing up, or sitting down -- it didn't matter, Shannon managed to figure them out. Johnny had always been a willing participant in her quest for sexual creativity, and tonight was no exception.
It wasn’t quite the same as that other Christmas Eve had been, but neither one of them was disappointed on this night either.
* * * * * * * *
They spent the night sleeping together contentedly in her bedroom. Shannon slept so soundly she didn't hear him get up before the sun came up. She was finally awakened from her deep slumber by Jack's excited barking. She could hear Johnny telling him to shut up, then she heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the direction of the kitchen.
She sat up quickly and called out, "Johnny? Are you all right?"
Shannon was pretty sure he hadn't meant for her to hear all the words that came out of his mouth. "Yeah," he finally called back, "I just dropped a glass in the sink. Sorry."
Rubbing her eyes, she stretched, arching her back. It always seemed to ache when she first woke up. She didn't even want to know what it would feel like three months from now. The room was still dark, and the morning light was only just beginning to steal through the window blinds.
She looked at the clock beside her bed. Six AM. She giggled a little, wondering if Santa had come in the night while they slept. Money was really tight, and they'd agreed not to spend much on each other this year. Her usual dilemma for a gift for Johnny had been solved with a phone call to Charles Eagle Plume in Colorado. The man seemed to know just what she was looking for. It wasn't quite the exquisite gift the knife had been, but she was as excited about her choice now as she had been then. It was just a matter if Johnny would like it.
Shannon laid back down for a minute, pulling the covers up under her chin, and thought about last night. It had been wonderful, but she still felt a small pang of doubt if it really meant anything, other than indulging their neglected carnal needs. She rolled over on her side and decided for the moment she didn't care. They'd both enjoyed it immensely.
She’d almost dozed off again when Jack bounced on the bed and licked her face. Not the wake-up kiss she would have preferred, but it had the desired effect of getting her to open her eyes. Johnny was still making noise in the kitchen, so she rolled out of bed and pulled on her warmest sweats and tennis shoes, and brushed her hair before going to see what he was doing. The smell of coffee was enticing. Only a recent convert, Shannon couldn't believe she missed drinking it, but was trying her best to avoid too much caffeine. It looked like his attempt to make breakfast was turning into a little disaster, but she didn’t care. She kissed him lightly on the lips and they wished each other a Merry Christmas.
"Johnny, why are we up so early?" she yawned. "We're not supposed to be at Roy and Joanne's until two this afternoon. I wanted to sleep in."
"Because I have to give you your present now." There was a devious smile in his eyes as though he’d just pulled off a rather large coup.
She glanced curiously at the tree in the den. The only presents under it were the ones they were taking this afternoon. She still had his hidden away in the closet, so she assumed hers was hidden somewhere too.
"Okay, so where is it?" she asked suspiciously. She had no clue what he’d been up to.
“Follow me.” Shannon trailed behind as Johnny as he slowly walked down the hallway. With the brace on and using crutches for support, he was beginning to bear some weight on his leg. Shannon knew how hard he'd been working to get to this point, and she knew how much he'd suffered after every session. It was almost a Christmas gift just to see the progress he'd made.
Johnny stopped at the front door and told her she had to close her eyes. Shannon felt like a little kid, but she went along with the request. He opened the door and reminded her she had to keep her eyes closed until he told her to open them. They carefully stepped out onto the porch and he told her to stop, making sure her eyes were still closed. When he finally said she could open them, she practically squealed in delight.
“Johnny! How did you do this? How did you know?”
He looked at her, dumbfounded. “I think you may have mentioned it once or twice, Shannon.”
“Well, yeah.... But, I never expected.... I just.... Oh, never mind. It’s beautiful!”
The entire front yard, from the porch to the road, was covered in snow. A small pine tree in a wood planter sat in the middle of the yard, decorated with bright blue ornaments and covered with shiny 'icicles' that were blowing in the breeze and reflecting the morning sun as it came up over the treetops. She barely took notice of the large, oddly wrapped present under the tree.
Shannon couldn't get over the snow. She couldn't get over the fact that Johnny had arranged this for her and wondered how many of the neighbors had taken their shovels and driven their pickup trucks into the mountains in the middle of the night to do this for him. He couldn't have bought a more priceless gift. Jack raced around in it, almost as excited as Shannon was.
The snow wasn't real deep, but it was a beautiful sight. Johnny eased himself down the steps, and she followed. Shannon thought about laying on her back and making a snow angel, but she thought getting up might be a problem, so she passed on the idea, and instead just scooped up a handful and threw it in the air. She wanted to make snowballs and throw them, but it wouldn’t have been any fun without a target. The look on Johnny’s face showed he read her mind and dismissed any idea she might have had that he was willing to be one. Her attention was finally drawn to the present under the tree. The snow crunched under her shoes as she walked over to it. Johnny hung behind a little so he could see the look on her face when she opened it.
Shannon stared at the present for a few seconds trying to guess what it was. The way it was wrapped gave her no clue. Shannon threw a questioning glance back at Johnny before she began to remove the wrapping paper. As soon as she saw what it was, she dropped to her knees, oblivious to the cold, wet snow, and excitedly tore away the rest of the paper. She knew Johnny had made it himself. It explained the many hours he'd spent across the road at Tom and Sheila's the last few weeks.
The loving care with which it was crafted showed in every detail, from the cut of the wood, to the golden oak glow of the hand rubbed finish. The one she would have chosen from catalog would have paled in comparison. The cradle was the kind that you could swing rather than rock. Shannon ran her fingers along the side -- the wood was so smooth, it almost felt like velvet to the touch. Johnny was standing beside her now, and there were tears shining in her eyes when she looked up at him.
He picked up the small present laying on top of the mattress and handed it to her. Inside the wrapping paper was a small handmade quilt. She stood up and brushed the snow from her knees, then opened the quilt to its full size. In the middle of the quilt was a bright red fire engine, surrounded by a border of Dalmatians and fire hydrants. Stitched across the top was "Sean Nathaniel Gage", and stitched across the bottom was "Junior Fire Fighter" in bold red and black letters. The number 51 was on the door of the engine.
Shannon was speechless. Johnny had talked so little about his feelings about the baby. Laying the quilt across the cradle, she turned and carefully slid her arms around him and hugged as hard as she dared. She kissed him with almost as much passion as she had last night until she could feel him start to sway on his crutches.
"Johnny, the cradle is absolutely beautiful. And the quilt is perfect. You don’t know how much this means to me. Thank you," she whispered, barely able to keep from crying again.
Obviously pleased that she was pleased, but a little overwhelmed by her response, Johnny looked at the quilt again. "Mrs. Henderson did a great job with that,” adding in a mocking tone, “just remember, that's the closest he's ever going to come to being called 'Junior.'"
Shannon burst into laughter at that. Johnny had finally confessed why he objected to naming the baby after him, and while she wasn't sure that was a good enough reason, she had relented. As a compromise, he agreed to Sean as a derivative of John, and knowing how much it meant to her, Johnny also agreed on her father's name for the baby's middle name.
Shannon suddenly noticed Johnny was shivering and encouraged him to go back inside where it was warm. The cradle was too heavy and bulky for her to move, but she didn't want to leave it outside.
"In about five minutes, there'll be plenty of people here to bring that in for us," he told her, "I promised everyone who helped bring the snow down that they could send the kids over to play in it before it melted. I hope you don't mind sharing your present."
Shannon happily shook her head no. "Not at all... I might even come back out and help them build a snowman. But first, let's go in. I have something for you, too."
Johnny arranged the pillows and made himself comfortable on the den couch. Standing for so long had worn him out. Shannon brought him a cup of coffee and covered him with a blanket, knowing how much the cold bothered him.
She sat on the edge of the couch and kissed him again. A long, deep kiss that might have lead to a repeat of last night if Johnny hadn't been so tired. She wanted more from him, but didn’t push it when he failed to protest when she pulled away.
"Johnny, thank you. I know I told you... both presents mean so much to me. The cradle is so beautiful. And the snow. I don't know... it just... it makes the day perfect already." She got up and started to walk away to get his present, but stopped. "I know you have a hard time believing this Johnny, but I want you to know that I'm here because I love you. There's no other reason."
His silence hurt, but she wasn't going to ruin the day by saying any more. She went into her bedroom and pulled a long, narrow box out of the closet and brought it back into the den.
She stalled him just before he started to unwrap it. "After you open it, let me explain before you decide if you like it or not." She loved the gift, but was afraid he’d take it the wrong way.
Johnny smiled when he saw the shipping label on the box. It had come from Eagle Plume's Trading Post in Colorado. When Shannon had introduced them during the week he spent with her, Charles had shaken his hand and called him "old friend." The greeting struck him as a little unusual, but Johnny had the strangest feeling that he'd known the man for a long time. Johnny rarely gave conscious thought to the stories he'd been told growing up, but meeting Charles had stirred a lot of buried memories. Perhaps somewhere in time, their ancestors had crossed paths once or twice.
He opened the flap and pulled it out, as Shannon pulled the box away for him. She could tell right away that he did like it and breathed a sigh of relief, but rushed to explain anyway.
"Johnny, I remember the look on your face when Dr. Brackett said that as you went through rehab, you were going to have to give up the crutches and maybe use a walker. I knew that would never happen. And when he said that you'd probably need to use a cane after that, I could tell that wasn't going to happen either. But you need something, and I thought maybe you'd use this instead." She was still a little worried that he'd be offended. “Charles said you’d know what to do with it when you didn’t need it to help you walk any more.”
"I... I will use it. It's really incredible." He looked closely at the carving in the handle. "A bear, huh?"
He admired the custom-made walking stick, carved by hand from western cedar. It had been lacquered until it gleamed, but the beauty of the reddish-brown wood still showed through. Carved around the top was the figure of a brown bear.
"One of the books Charles gave me explained some of the symbolism Indians relate to animals. The bear reminded me of you. I think what caught my eye most... “ she recited from memory, “was that it described 'a self-sufficient person, someone who would rather stand on his own two feet than rely on others.' It also said the bear represents a healer, someone with gentle strength, and a dreamer." She watched for his reaction. "I hope it was the right choice?"
Johnny nodded, deep in thought. It had been the perfect description. Once. He wasn't so sure if it fit any longer. He hadn’t stood on his own two feet for a long time, and his dreams had been put on hold months ago.
"I love it, Shannon," he said, forcing himself to stop thinking about it right now. "Thank you. And, I'll use it. You're right, there's no way you'd see me walking around with a cane like an old man. Even if that's what I feel like most of the time."
They could hear the sound of laughter from the front yard, then a knock on the door. Shannon opened the door to a hearty "Merry Christmas," and asked Tom to take the cradle to the room that was to become the nursery. She showed him the way, then thanked him for all his help. He insisted that he had only lent the tools and the workshop and that Johnny had done all the work by himself. By the time they got back to the den, Johnny was sound asleep on the couch, with the walking stick by his side.
Tom whispered, "Tell him Sheila and Mark and I wish him a Merry Christmas. We'll see you both later. I can show myself out."
Shannon fixed the blanket and picked up the coffee cup and took it back to the kitchen. She cleaned up the broken glass in the sink, then went to get a warm jacket and some gloves.
She and the kids had a snowman to make and a snowball fight to engage in.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny and Shannon arrived at the DeSoto’s house about 2:30, making their apologies for being late. They had both taken long naps and overslept. Joanne brushed away the apology, reminding them dinner wasn't until four anyway. She was glad to see that they looked happy and relaxed for a change. Johnny looked good, although his face still wore the signs of his ordeal. The months of pain had taken their toll. Some of the light in his eyes and some of the warmth of his smile was missing. There was certainly no bounce to his step.
It was the first time the kids had seen Johnny since before the accident. Barely waiting for him to slowly sink into the chair, Chris excitedly launched into a rundown of what he’d gotten for Christmas, but Jennifer hung back and stood quietly by the couch, holding onto her mother’s hand.
Roy carried in the kid's presents from the truck, and Shannon brought in the dessert. One of the neighbors had given her a recipe for cherry cheesecake, and it looked like it had turned out really good for a first effort. She hoped it tasted as good as it looked. Baking was definitely not her forte.
While the kids opened their presents, Shannon told Roy and Joanne about the snow and about the cradle. Jennifer stopped what she was doing when Shannon described the baby's cradle that Johnny had made, and listened carefully. No one noticed her crinkle up her forehead in confusion. Shannon had brought the quilt with her, and showed it off proudly.
The women eventually wandered off to the kitchen, presumably to talk about the kinds of things that mothers and mothers-to-be always talked about. Chris and Jennifer went to the den to watch a movie while they waited for dinner, leaving Roy and Johnny alone in the living room. They both felt awkward... the memory of their last strained conversation still stood between them. Roy figured it was his turn to start this one.
"So, how are you doing, Johnny?" he asked.
"A little better every day." The reply was a bit abrupt, but he’d answered the question.
“That’s good. I’m glad.” Roy fidgeted with a piece of ribbon in his hands before looking up again. "Johnny... I... I'm sorry if I upset you that day at the hospital."
"It's okay, Roy. It's Christmas. I'm in a forgiving mood today." Johnny tried to sound like he was teasing, but it didn't quite come out that way.
Roy leaned forward toward Johnny, curious to know if anything had changed. "Does that mean you're feeling any differently about the things you said?"
"No. Not really. I'm just trying to put everything aside for a while. It being Christmas and all."
"I just wanted to help."
"When I want help, Roy, I'll ask for it. All I need is some time."
"I'd think you, of all people Johnny, would know we don't always have time to put off the important things."
It was obvious by his raised voice that Johnny was getting irritated again.
"I'm not putting anything off. I'm just trying to figure out what I want to do. What I want, Roy. Not what everyone else thinks is best for me. So, it's taking me a while. I don't know why you or anyone else has such a big problem with that. This is important.... This is the rest of my life we’re talking about. You used to complain about how I always made quick decisions and that I never thought things through. So now I’m trying to take my time and make sure I know what I want." Johnny finally lowered his voice, "What I do and how I do it is my business, not yours."
The rest of the house was quiet. No doubt everyone had heard the conversation.
After a minute of silence, Johnny apologized, "I'm sorry, Roy. I know you wanna help. I appreciate it. But, there's nothing you or anyone else can do. I have to work things out for myself, in my own time."
"All right." Roy knew when to stop. "You know where to find me if you need me."
Johnny looked across the room and saw Jennifer standing in the hallway staring at him. She turned around and went back to the den.
The men changed the subject to football, and their festive mood had returned by the time dinner was ready. Joanne had outdone herself with the ham and sweet potatoes smothered with marshmallows, and the green-bean casserole, the salad and the freshly baked dinner rolls. They all agreed to wait a while for dessert until everyone had a chance to make a little room for it.
After the dishes had been done and put away, Roy suggested that they take a drive to look at the Christmas light displays in a few neighborhoods around the area. Some of them were pretty spectacular, and a glow from the multitude of lights some of the homeowners had put up could be seen from blocks away.
Urging everyone else to go, Johnny begged off, wanting to stretch out his leg and relax on the couch. His hip was hurting and he tried not to let on just how much it was bothering him. Assured he was really all right, the rest of them bundled up and headed out the door for Joanne's station wagon. Grateful for the quiet and wanting to soak in a little of the Christmas atmosphere while he relaxed, Johnny turned off all the lights except those twinkling on the tree. The angel that sat on top glowed in the dark. Christmas hymns played softly on the stereo. Johnny stretched out on the couch and groaned as he tried to get comfortable, then closed his eyes for a moment, remembering Christmases he hadn’t thought of in a long time.
"Uncle Johnny?" she said quietly, not wanting to startle him.
Johnny sat up a little, surprised to see Jennifer standing in the room. She’d barely spoken two words to him since they got there.
"Jennifer, what are you doing here? I thought you went to look at lights with your folks?"
"I asked my mom if I could stay home and keep you company. I've already seen the lights. They're okay. I like ours better. She said I could stay, but that I wasn't supposed to bother you. Am I... bothering you?"
Johnny smiled and shook his head and invited her to sit down beside him. He groaned again when he moved over to make room. She sat down carefully and stared past him, looking at the Christmas tree for a while. He thought she looked just like Roy when he had something on his mind. He waited patiently for her.
She looked down at his leg and reached out to touch the brace. She traced her finger over it, acting as though he wasn't even there. She finally looked up at him again, and drew her hand away. The earlier frown returned.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
He'd always been honest with her. "Yes it does, Jennifer. Not as much as it did at first, but it still hurts."
"Did it hurt really bad?"
"Yes, Jennifer, it hurt really bad." Johnny hoped she'd never have to know that kind of pain.
"Can I ask a question?"
Johnny nodded. So much like Roy. Always the diplomat.
"I heard my mom and dad talking about you a couple of weeks ago...."
"You were eavesdropping?"
"Um... sort of. I.... You won't tell, will you? They kinda have a rule against me and Chris doing that."
"No, Jenny, I won't tell. But you've got to promise not to do it again."
"I won't, I promise."
"Okay. So, what did they say about me?"
"I only listened... 'cause I was mad at you and I could tell my dad was too. He never gets mad, so when I heard him, I wanted to know why."
"Why was your dad mad at me?"
"Well..., I couldn't hear everything he said because my mom kept telling him to keep his voice down. He said something about you throwing everything away that you'd done in your life. Then he said you were lucky to have a second chance at things and you were being stupid for not seeing that." Jennifer stopped, knowing she probably shouldn't have repeated that. "Uncle Johnny, you're not going to tell him I told you that, are you?"
"No, Jen, this conversation is just between us, I promise."
"Then I heard him say that you wouldn't talk to Aunt Shannon and that you didn't want her to have the baby. He said you didn't want to be a father. He was really mad about that."
"I suppose he was. And why were you mad at me, Jenny?"
"Because you wouldn't let me and Chris come see you. I really wanted to see you, but they said you didn't want to see me. I didn't know why. And then when I heard my dad say that you didn't want to be a father, I thought maybe it meant you didn't want to be our uncle anymore either. I know you're not really my uncle, but I... I thought you wanted to be."
About to cry, Jennifer lowered her head so he wouldn't see. She was nine after all, and she didn't want him to think she was acting like a four-year old little kid.
He gently lifted her chin and asked her to look at him. Her lower lip was quivering.
"If... if you don't want me to call you Uncle Johnny anymore, I won't. But I still love you."
He pulled her close and she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Jenny," he whispered, "I love you, too. Don't ever stop calling me Uncle Johnny." He stroked her hair and felt her warm tears on his neck. "Jen, I was hurt really bad and I didn't want anyone to see me like that. I didn't want you to see me like that. I wanted to see you, sweetheart, but I didn't want you to be scared of me."
Johnny pulled her arms away from his neck, and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
Jennifer was still sobbing. "It scared me not to see you, Uncle Johnny. At first, I... I thought you were dead and... and... no one would tell me." She didn't care if she was nine, she cried her heart out on his shoulder.
He just held her tight and let her cry until she was done. She finally sat up, still sniffling. Her face was slightly flushed and her eyes were red and puffy, but she was glad he still wanted her to call him Uncle.
"Can I ask you another question, Uncle Johnny?"
"You can ask me anything you want, Jen."
"Why don't you want to be a daddy?"
Well, anything but that.
"I don't know if I have an answer to give you Jennifer. I'm still trying to figure that one out for myself." It was the truth.
"But you made him a cradle. And you got him that fireman blanket with his name on it. And he has your last name. I don't understand... you're not even my real uncle and you love me. Why wouldn't you love your own baby?" A tear rolled down her cheek again.
This kid had a way of getting right to his heart while getting straight to the heart of the matter. "Jennifer, can I tell you something? Something I haven't told anyone else."
She nodded and swiped the tear with the back of her hand. "I won't tell anyone what you say either, if you don't want me to." It wasn't the first secret of his she'd kept.
Johnny brushed away the wisp of hair that hung on her forehead. "I do love the baby already, Jenny. And I want to be his father. I'm just afraid that I can't take care of him and that I can't take care of your Aunt Shannon." Almost to himself he said, "Sometimes I think maybe they'd be better off without me."
She snuggled beside him and he wrapped his arms around her. Together, they listened to the strains of O, Holy Night playing in the background.
"You're wrong, you know."
You don't argue with a nine-year old when she knows what she's talking about.
* * * * * * * *
If Shannon thought Christmas was a turning point, she was soon proven wrong. It had merely been a peaceful interlude, a calm before the storm.
As the weeks flew by, Johnny grew distant and moody, and to Shannon it seemed like he was just going through the motions of getting ready for the baby's arrival. He and Roy had painted the nursery, and Johnny had assembled the crib and changing table that Shannon and Joanne picked out. Most everything else he left to her. When she would ask his opinion, he'd just shrug and say it was fine with him.
He dutifully went to Lamaze class with her, but he already knew all about delivering babies. He'd done it so many times, he seemed disinterested. Johnny didn't seem to get the idea that he was supposed to be there to support her, and the doctors would be handling the delivery. Or maybe he did get the idea, and he didn't care.
After Christmas Eve, he hadn’t returned to her bed, and rebuffed any advances she made. No amount of pleading or cajoling on her part would get him to open up to her, and she finally gave up pushing him. If it hadn't been for her friends -- Johnny's friends -- Roy and Joanne, Dixie, and Rick Wilson... even Sheila and Tom... she would have left him. Difficult as it would be, she would have managed on her own. Sympathetic and understanding as their friends were of her feelings, they all held firm in their belief that one day Johnny would see the light, and persuaded her that she needed to be there when he did. She reminded herself, too, that she promised she would never walk away from him again.
He was just making it so damned hard to stay.
Five and half months after the accident, he no longer had to wear a brace, and was walking unassisted. He'd still come home from physical therapy exhausted and in pain. Shannon knew he was pushing himself too hard, and she had to wonder why. If anyone mentioned his returning to duty before his year was up, Johnny would tell them he wasn't even going to try to make it.
Sometimes they had walked together in the evenings and talked a little. But as he got stronger, and she got bigger, it was hard for her to keep up. With her due date only two weeks away, Shannon found she only wanted to plant herself somewhere comfortable and not move. She had just started maternity leave; the doctors were a little concerned about her blood pressure, and recommended she stay off her feet now as much as possible.
It was a chilly mid-March evening that found Shannon sitting on the porch waiting for Johnny to return from his long walk up the canyon road and back. She hoped he'd walked off some of his earlier hostility. The more she thought about it, the more Shannon felt she knew exactly what... or better... who... the problem was, and decided it was time they brought it out into the open.
Wheezing from exertion, Johnny sat down heavily on the porch step beside her and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt, and ran his hands through his hair. He stretched his left leg out straight in front of him and leaned his elbows on the step behind him. Shannon tossed the tennis ball for Jack a few times, but he didn't seem to enjoy it. She couldn't throw the ball far enough to suit him. He dropped the ball at Johnny's feet with tongue lolling and tail wagging expectantly. Johnny just ignored him until he went away. Shannon was sure she could see the disappointment in the dog’s eyes.
"What time do you go for therapy tomorrow?" she asked innocently, gathering the nerve to get the conversation underway.
"I'm going to start running tomorrow if it doesn't rain. I'll probably leave about ten. Why?" he asked, sounding as though what he did was none of her business.
That answer took her by surprise, and she overlooked the tone of his voice. Dr. Brackett had said he shouldn't start running for at least another month.
"Are you sure that's a good idea? Dr. Brackett said...."
He brusquely cut her off. "I'm ready. I can handle it."
"Are you going alone?" She put the subject back on track, knowing he wouldn't be.
He hesitated for a moment, eyeing her suspiciously. "No..., I'm meeting Jill. She's going to run with me just to make sure everything's all right. She seems to think I can do it."
"That’s interesting. You'll listen to her, but not to Dr. Brackett? Who's the doctor, Johnny?"
He knew exactly what was coming and didn’t like it one bit. "I wouldn't be this far along if it wasn't for Jill. Brackett doesn't see me all the time. She does." He leaned forward and picked up the tennis ball and threw it hard even though Jack wasn't around to chase it down. "Why shouldn't I listen to her? She listens to me all the time."
"And what do you tell her, Johnny?" She could tell he wasn't happy with the turn of this conversation.
"It's really none of your business, Shannon." He might as well have slapped her. "Jill says you don't like her. I’d say that's pretty obvious. What do you have against her? You've only met her a couple of times. She says...."
"I don't give a damn what Jill says," Shannon snapped, "and you shouldn't either."
"Well, I do give a damn.” Johnny snapped right back. “She's the only one who seems to understand what I’m going through. She’s the only one who doesn’t tell me what I should do. She just listens. Sometimes I think she's the only real friend I have."
"Just what is going on here, Johnny?” she said angrily. “You talk to her more than you talk to me, and I can’t help it if it bothers me. She bothers me. I've seen the way she looks at you."
It took a minute for what she meant to sink in. He was stunned by the implication.
"I can't believe you said that. Even if it was true, are you saying you don't trust me?"
"It’s not you... I don't trust her, Johnny."
"Well, I do," he was getting really angry now. "She's never given me any reason not to."
That hurt, but she held her tongue. "People aren't always what they seem."
"No, they're not." He looked at her accusingly. "Jill's a friend. A good friend. Better than most. She doesn't want anything from me."
"Don't be so sure of that." Shannon warned, trying hard to keep her own anger from reaching the boiling point.
"Jill’s never asked me for anything. She's the only one who'll listen to me."
"You said that already. Of course she is.... Because she's the only one you'll talk to. Roy would listen to you... Rick Wilson would listen to you... I’d listen to you if you’d let me. Jill may be good at a lot of things, but Johnny... remember.... She’s not the one who has to sit here and watch you turn your back on everyone and everything that mattered to you once. She's not the one who gets up in the middle of the night and holds you until your nightmares go away and changes your sweat-soaked sheets. She's not the one.... She’s not the one who's going to have your baby."
He didn't say it so quietly she couldn't hear.
"If it is my baby."
This time he might as well have kicked her in the stomach. She couldn't breath for a minute.
"Well, how do I know he's mine?"
"Oh, my God! Johnny, I wouldn't lie about something like that. I know you don’t trust me, but how could you even think that? “ Completely shocked, Shannon wondered how long ago this thought had transpired. She knew who had planted it there. “I swear I never slept with Brian. I... I've never slept with anyone but you in my whole life."
"So you say."
That did it. She was furious now. She may have broken some promises, but she had never lied to him. Never. "Even if I had slept with him... or anyone else, what business is it of yours?" she was shouting at him now. "Are you going to sit there and tell me you've never slept with another woman?"
"Not as often and indiscriminately as some seem to think." he responded coolly.
"But, you have.... You’ve slept with other women, so don't you dare apply a double standard here." Shaking like a leaf, she ignored the baby's elbow that jabbed harder the more upset she got.
"But it wasn't the same thing, Shannon." His voice turned cold as ice, as he looked straight at her. "I never told any of those women that I loved them. And I never said I would marry them. You did that. You told Brian you loved him and you told him that you'd marry him. You lied to him. How do I know you're not lying to me, too?"
Shannon covered her mouth with her hand. She was sure she was going to be sick. Her breath came in short gasps and she swallowed hard, trying to keep a steady voice, without success.
"I've admitted I made a mistake. I'd take it all back if I could, but I can't. I've told you I'm sorry a hundred times, and I meant it every time." She pleaded with him to look at her again, but he refused. In a very small voice, she begged for an answer.
"What more do you want from me, Johnny?"
He had no answer to give.
She choked on tears of defeat, wondering if he was going to make her pay for her mistake the rest of her life. She stood up and walked up the step to the porch, pausing with her hand on the door.
"When you figure out what it is you want, you let me know." Her voice was suddenly calm.
"Just don't take too much longer."