A Future They Never Saw
Alex, Briar, and Ember jumped to their feet whistling and cheering loudly as Jo finished her speech. She was graduating top of her class from medical school, and they couldn't have asked for a more perfect day. Alex looked on with pride as Jo crossed the stage, that had been erected on the football field, to receive her degree. Almost three year old Ember was contentedly sitting on his lap sucking her thumb and eleven year old Briar was sitting in the seat next to him. Briar was sitting by his Aunt Amber on the other side; Amber was lost in her own world imagining a day just like this one a couple of years in the future when she would be the one walking across that very stage.
When the ceremony was over, Alex and the kids went to join Jo on the field. She grinned as she saw her little family approaching, Briar apparently in deep conversation with Amber and Ember happily babbling away on her daddy's shoulders. Alex greeted her with a kiss, "I'm so proud of you, Jo." Amber offered her congratulations as well, Jo bid her classmates goodbye, and the Karevs slowly walked back to their car. "I have a surprise for you waiting at home," Alex divulged to Jo with a sneaky smile, "a couple of surprises actually."
Her face lit up, "I can't wait; I love surprises!"
"I hope so," he mumbled to himself starting to get nervous about the second part of his surprise. He hoped Jo wouldn't be upset when she found out what he had done.
When they pulled up to the house, the street was full of cars and there was a brightly painted banner hanging on the front of their house. "You threw me a party!" Jo gasped as realization dawned on her.
He nodded proudly, "I did, with a little help from the gang," he admitted referencing the other residents. They made their way inside where Jo was smothered in congratulations and hugs from all of their friends. "There's something else too," Alex pulled Jo away from everyone else. He led her down the hall to the kids' playroom pushing the door open and stepping back.
Jo peeked inside and froze in place, stunned. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. Standing in front of her were Curtis and Ellen Sage. They were older, of course, but they both still looked like she remembered them. Finally, she gasped covering her mouth with her hands as tears sprang to her eyes, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe it. What are you guys doing here? How did you know?"
Noticing the tears in Jo's eyes Ellen wiped her own and rushed forward taking the younger woman into an embrace, "Oh my baby girl," she muttered as she smoothed Jo's hair holding on tight. "I've thought about you everyday. I missed you so much," she continued cooing in Jo's ear.
Jo clung to Ellen as well, relishing the feel of a mother's touch. When they separated, Jo looked up at Curtis with a shy smile, "Hi," she said simply. He gave a terse wave as he stood back nervously watching the reunion. The tension between the two was palpable.
Alex cleared his throat and stepped forward admitting sheepishly, "I uh, looked them up, they still live the same place as they used to, and um, I thought it would be nice if they came out for your graduation. To see how far you've come and to… Well anyway it was just time," he finished.
Jo took his hand squeezing it lovingly and said sincerely with more tears brimming her eyes, "Thank you," she then turned to her once upon a time parents, "and thank you for coming. It means so much to me that you would."
When they rejoined the party, Ellen stayed close by Jo's side. She gave Jo a brief recap of what had been going on since she left and where the boys had ended up. "You have become such a strong beautiful woman," she marveled for the umpteenth time, "I always knew you would. And your children and family… just beautiful."
Curtis found Jo alone in the kitchen with Ember. He cleared his throat to get her attention without startling her and asked, "Can we talk?"
"Yeah, of course," she closed the refrigerator and handed Ember a juice box, "Here, bring it to Daddy so he can open it for you." The toddler obeyed gingerly taking the drink and walking off to find her dad. Curtis watched the exchange with a wistful smile tugging at his lips. Jo gave her full attention to the man after her daughter had left. "Do you wanna talk here? or there's a porch swing out back.." she made a move towards the door.
Curtis nodded following her. They sat in awkward silence for a beat or two before he finally spoke up, "Jo, I am so sorry," he started, regret lacing his words, "I can't tell you enough how sorry I am. It wasn't supposed to go that way. And it's no excuse, but you never came back home, I never saw you again. We didn't get a chance to talk again. And I'm not laying blame on you, I'm really not. I didn't give you anything to want to come back home to. I could have gone to you, found you," he shook his head sadly, "but I never did. Blame it on my stubborn pride."
Jo let out a low chuckle, "Yeah, me too."
"Ellen was mad at me for a long, long time after that. I did come to my senses and was going to find you, but so much time had passed…" he trailed off staring into the distance shame written all over his body as he slouched in the swing.
She hesitantly touched his arm drawing his attention, forgiveness in her eyes and her own regret filling her voice, "It was just as much my fault," she nodded, "I could have gone back, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to be found. I was mad and scared and messed up. Mad at you, but mostly mad at my birth mother for not loving me and mad at myself for getting in that position in the first place."
"I always cared about you Jo. We all did; we all loved you."
"Yeah, I see that now looking back, but at the time I just couldn't open up to it. I couldn't open up to you and let you all love me. I was so broken then, and I couldn't even really see it. But when I met Alex, he was broken too. I could let him in; it felt like he understood me. You all had such a nice and happy family, I just didn't feel like I fit or that you could really want me."
"Oh, Jo, that couldn't be further from the truth," Curtis said hurting for the little girl she had been.
"I know that now. Back then I didn't even know that's what I was feeling; I was so confused and the hurt and scars went so deep. I didn't realize how broken I was until Alex and our family put me back together. I know now that you all loved me and if I would have opened up your love could have helped to put me back together, but I just wasn't there yet, I guess," she shrugged.
"I really did only want what was best for you and to me raising a baby at sixteen wasn't it. I really thought you were throwing your dreams away," he explained. "I guess you really proved me wrong in a big way, huh?" he grinned like the proud daddy he felt like. Jo chuckled, relief filling her as the mood around them seemed to lighten. He continued, "You didn't just become a doctor, no, you graduated top of your class while raising not just one but two kids."
She blushed, "Well, I didn't do it all on my own you know. I have Alex. He really is an amazing guy. I hope maybe you will get to know him now. He never was what his reputation said he was."
Curtis nodded, "Yeah, I didn't give him much of a chance, did I? I am proud of him too though, just so you know, I'm proud of the way he stood up for you and stood by you and still does. You two really have built quite the family."
"Yeah, we have," Jo said proudly. "I always looked to you and Ellen and your family for what a good family that worked looked like."
He put his arm around Jo's shoulders, "We didn't tell you this, in case things didn't work out for some reason, but back then before all of that happened, we were looking into adopting you…"
He was going to say more, but Jo interrupted wide eyed, "Really? I had no idea."
"Yeah, we were," he confirmed with a short nod of the head, "and I know it's too late to do that now, but I would be honored if you and your family would be a part of our family. I've always considered you my daughter anyway."
Once again, Jo felt the tears burning her eyes, "Of course," she breathed. For the first time, Curtis wrapped his arms around Jo in a big bear hug, and she knew what it felt like to have a daddy. A place in her heart that she hadn't even realized was still empy overflowed.
The two walked back into the house arm in arm with smiles lighting their faces. Alex and Ellen exchanged a look of happy surprise.
As the party continued Jo met Alex's eyes across the room and beckoned to him. He narrowed his eyes at her curiously but followed her outside. "I know I'm the one who graduated, but I have a surprise of my own for you," she said grabbing his hand as soon as he closed the door behind himself. "I never would have made it here without you."
He wiggled his eyebrows at her, "How do I know you're not just trying to bribe your chief resident?" he teased.
"I have other ways to get on his good side," she replied coyly. He leaned down pecking her lips as they laughed. She pulled on his hand leading him over to the neighbor's side-yard. She watched his reaction as he took in the old beat up pickup that looked just like the one he drove when they had first met.
His eyes widened in shock and he opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to find words, "Wha… What is this?" he finally croaked out.
"It's your pickup," she said simply. He continued to stare in disbelief. "I always did like that old truck. You and Briar can fix it up when he gets older," she grinned at him.
Alex laughed loudly and lunged at Jo wrapping her in a huge hug picking her up off the ground. He kissed her soundly on the lips. "This is amazing. Wow! Jo, thank you."
She tossed the keys to him, "Let's go for a drive. Park somewhere like old times," she winked.
They drove out of the city and parked in a clearing looking out over the sound. Jo had filled the back of the truck with pillows and blankets making a nice soft bed. They laid there looking up at the stars in the night sky.
Alex dug in his pocket and handed something to Jo, "You didn't think I forgot, did you?" he asked.
"My bracelet," her eyes lit up as she studied the charm. It was a staff with a snake curled around it that had become the symbol for medicine. She clasped it on the bracelet she wore around her wrist. She turned her face up meeting his lips with her own.
Alex fingered her bracelet after they had pulled apart, "Look at the story of our lives," he mused, "these charms really do tell it."
"Yeah," she agreed thoughtfully, "look how far we've come. So many times I never thought we would get here; I never really thought we would make it."
"I knew we would," he said confidently, "I was going to make sure of it. It wasn't easy a lot of the time though."
"No," she agreed, "but it was worth it. Our life has turned out amazing."
"It has. And it's only just beginning. I love you, Jo," he voiced tenderly.
"I love you too. Thank you for walking this road with me."
They cuddled in the back of that pickup counting their blessings as numerous as the stars dancing in the sky above them. It wasn't the future they saw all those years ago in a pickup bed much like that one, but it was the life they made and it was better than they could have ever dreamed. The most important part hadn't changed, they were side by side on the journey.
A/N: I can't say thank you enough to all of you who have followed this story over the past year. It is the first multi-chapter story I have written and honestly I can't believe I did it. Each and every one of your reviews has meant so much to me. You have all really encouraged me to keep pressing on and writing even when it got tough and I had little inspiration. So thank you, thank you, thank you!
PS: I wasn't planning on writing another chapter story for a long time after I finished this one, but someone messaged me with an idea that they wanted me to try my hand at writing so I am currently brainstorming and outlining that story. So if you are interested, be on the lookout for "Safe Place To Land" coming soon.