CHAPTER 7 – THE PLACE HE ONCE CALLED HOME

Laura Hardy could barely keep her tears from streaming down her face as she sat opposite the stranger that had once been her son. Joe was barely recognisable as the laidback, happy-go-lucky teenager with the world at his feet. His beautiful blue eyes, usually full of life, were dark with attitude. When he smiled, it wasn't his usual devilish grin but an arrogant smirk. He looked like a dropout with his uncut hair and heavy stubble.

"What's happened to you, Joe?" she whispered.

Joe shrugged his huge shoulders carelessly. "This is me now."

"I don't believe that."

"Look, I'm only here because Frank wouldn't leave me the hell alone until I came. Don't start on me, OK?"

"You're my son, Joe. What do you expect me to do, let you waste your life in that godforsaken city?"

"It's my choice, Mom, not yours."

"That's where you're wrong. We care about you; we love you. Do you think we're just going to let you go like that?"

"There's nothing you can do about it," Joe said sharply. "Don't you get it, Mom? You're too late."

The drops of salty liquid began to fall from Laura's eyes. "Do you think I'd ever give up on my son, Joe? I will never do that. I don't care how long it takes or how much you hate it, I'm going to get my boy back."

"Don't waste your time." Joe pushed himself to his feet. "Go find some other poor bastard to save. Someone who wants to be saved."

"You prick, Joe," Frank growled, heartbroken at seeing his mother's tears.

Joe spun round to face him. "You can shut the hell up as well, Mr Perfect! Why don't you go back to the city and free some gang kids? Then you can stop interfering in my life!" He strode to the door.

"Where're you going?" Frank yelled after him.

"I don't know."

Frank scrambled up to chase after his brother but Laura grabbed his arm before he could move.

"Don't, Frank," she whispered.

"I can't let him get away with upsetting you like that!"

"It doesn't matter about me. Joe's the important one right now."

"No, Mom, that's exactly what he thinks. That he's the only one that matters. He needs to realise the world doesn't revolve around him, that other people have problems as well."

Laura wiped her eyes. "I don't care, Frank. All I want is my little boy back. It doesn't matter what he's become, as long as I know he's safe."

Frank reached out and pulled her into his arms. "It's not too late, Mom," he whispered.

He tried to deny the fact his heart was telling him otherwise.

X X X

It had been a long time since Joe had walked the streets of Bayport. He couldn't help but feel a stab of emotion as he saw the places of his childhood, where he had grown up as he'd hung out with Frank and the others. The park, the river, the burger bar, the ice cream parlour. He couldn't stop himself remembering the good times he'd had in Bayport. He'd had a good childhood, Joe realised, assaulted by the memories. Hell, he'd had a good life. He'd been almost... blessed

After a while, he had only one place left that he hadn't seen. The place that had represented his growth and development; that had set him on the road to greatness. It wasn't its fault that Joe had strayed from that road. He knew he had to go there.

The football field hadn't changed. Everything was so familiar and, for a minute, Joe was overwhelmed by the memories of the nights he had spent out on that field with the Bayport High Tigers. That field was the place he had first become a star, the first place he had experienced adulation and success. It was deserted now; the football team would still be in class. Joe knew if he went into the locker room, he would see his picture of the Wall of Fame. The greatest player Bayport had ever known. His photo would always hang there, a time when he'd had the world at his feet. The young players would see it every time they entered the locker room. They would talk about him as they dressed.

"Joe Hardy? Yeah, my brother knew him. Bayport's never gonna have another player as good as Joe."

"He got every wide receiver record in the state. The guy's a legend."

"He was the best player in the NFL at one time. He couldn't do a damn thing wrong."

Then someone would say, "Wonder what he's doing now."

And the team would run out onto the field for practice and forget that Joe Hardy ever existed, until the next time they saw his picture. That was all he was to them now, a photo on a wall, a fallen legend. They probably wouldn't recognise him if they saw him in the street.

Digging his hands deep into his pockets, Joe climbed the familiar bleachers. Every Friday night of senior year, he and his football friends would go sit up there with a case of beer and relive their greatest football memories. They would talk all night about the thing that mattered most to them. Joe had loved those nights.

He sat down in the spot he'd always occupied. As he gazed down onto the field, he could almost see the team he had played with. See himself standing tall in the midst of them, hear the crowd yell out his name.

"Joe?"

He jumped on hearing the male voice and looked up sharply. At first, he didn't recognise the stocky young man with the blond crew cut. He wore a Bayport Tigers letterman jacket, the same jacket that Joe had lost long ago. Joe wished he were wearing his too. The guy was muscular but nowhere near as big as Joe, not as powerful. Not as tall either.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" the guy asked with a smile.

Finally, it hit Joe and he looked in disbelief at his former best friend.

"Biff?"

Biff Hooper grinned, the wide, laidback grin that Joe had once known so well. "How you doing, man?" He sat down beside Joe. "You're the last person I expected to find sitting on my bleachers."

"Your bleachers?"

"Yeah. I'm coaching varsity now." Biff tugged on the breast of his jacket and Joe saw the word Coach sewn on it.

"Wow." He shook his head. "That's pretty cool, Biff."

"Yeah, it's a great job." Biff dealt Joe a gentle punch to the arm. "What're you doing back here, Joe?"

"Frank dragged me back. Said I had to see the parents." Joe looked heavenwards. "My brother was always full of great ideas."

"Think maybe he was right?" Biff asked carefully.

"Don't you start."

"OK. But I was actually wondering why you came back to school."

Joe shrugged. "Guess I felt I had to. I owe a lot to this place. A lot of stuff happened here."

"It feels good coming back, doesn't it?" Biff smiled. "I used to stop by every time I came home for vacations. Sit up here and remember the good times. There were plenty of them, right?"

"Yeah," Joe admitted. "There were."

Biff pulled off his baseball cap and turned it awkwardly in his hands. "I've seen you in the newspapers, man. They ain't saying good stuff about you."

"They never do now."

"It's torn your mom apart, Joe. She hates reading that shit about you, but she can't get away from it. Every time she seems to open a newspaper, there's an article about you or a photo of you falling outta a strip club or something."

"Think I don't know that?"

"I don't think you know what you're doing to Laura's heart. It's all right cutting yourself off in LA, doing what you want, but you've forgotten there're people here who love you and care about you. And you're hurting them, Joe."

"Biff, leave it, OK?"

"I can't. I have to tell you while I got the chance. Shit, Joe, you could take a bad Ecstasy tablet tomorrow night and end up dead in an alleyway. I gotta tell you the truth before it's too late."

"I'm not gonna die, Biff."

"How do you know? Guys living your kinda lifestyle die every day." Biff pinched the peak of his cap. "You can't keep hiding from reality, Joe. I know how much it hurt when you had to quit the NFL, but you gotta accept it. It happened and you gotta move on from it."

"How can I? It shouldn't have happened, Biff. I didn't deserve it."

"A lot of people don't deserve what happens to them. But they pick up the pieces and get on with their lives."

Joe dropped his head into his hands. "Football was the only thing I ever wanted," he whispered. "I don't know what to do without it."

"But you got so much going for you, Joe! Yes, you were unbelievably good at football, but you got other talents. There're so many things you're good at!" Biff gripped his arm. "Look at yourself. You're fit, you're good-looking, you're strong. You got a hell of a lot going for you."

"But nothing's ever gonna live up to football."

"Maybe not, but you can still find a life that you can enjoy. And don't tell me you enjoy what you're doing now, because that isn't a life."

Joe looked up slowly. "I never meant for it to turn out like this, Biff."

"I know you didn't." Biff threw an arm round his shoulders. "Look, Joe, you're like a brother to me. I love you, man. I can't stand to see you like this. You gotta take control."

"How can I do that?"

"You have a fantastic family who thinks the world of you. They want to help you so bad. If you let them, you're taking the first step."

Joe swallowed hard. "I guess I've just been too proud."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Biff grinned. "But you can't be trapped by pride forever. You know that."

Joe nodded, looking into his friend's eyes for the first time. "Thanks, Biff," he whispered.

Biff smiled and threw an arm round Joe's shoulders. They hugged tight, like they had after every football game. Biff slapped his friend softly on the back.

"Time to come home, Joe," he said.

X X X

Joe deliberately took his time walking home, needing the chance to get his head together. The emotions whirling around inside him were threatening to overwhelm him, and several times he craved to be back in LA. All he wanted was a beer and a joint while hanging out with Rick and Jake. Then he remembered, even if he went back to LA, he couldn't hang out with Rick and Jake for a long time.

Remembering the downfall of the two cops was enough to spur him on and he made it home. The second he walked through the front door, he found himself face-to-face with his father. He was taken-aback. Fenton looked old. His hair was grey, his face lined, his intelligent eyes tired. Joe realised just how long it had been since he'd seen his father.

"Dad," he said awkwardly.

Father and son looked at each other for a long minute. Then Fenton stepped forward and grabbed Joe in a hard hug. Joe let out a long breath, allowing his tense muscles to relax.

"Good to see you, son," Fenton whispered.

"You too, Dad."

Fenton squeezed Joe's big shoulders. "Come on through to the kitchen. Your mom's made something to eat."

Joe followed his father through to the kitchen. Frank was sitting at the table with a sandwich and a packet of potato chips. He looked expressionlessly at his brother and carried on eating.

"Here, Joe, get some good food in you." Laura handed her youngest son a plate.

Joe forced a smile and accepted it. "Thanks, Mom."

"I'd forgotten how big you are," Fenton said, trying to sound jovial but not quite managing. "It looked like a giant was walking through the door."

Joe smiled again but didn't know what to say in response. He joined Frank at the table.

"Where did you go?" Laura asked gently.

"School. The football field." Joe took a bite of sandwich. His mother produced amazing food but with his unease, it tasted like cardboard. He had to swallow hard. "I saw Biff."

"He's done well for himself," Frank said pointedly.

Joe looked down at his plate and said nothing. Laura and Fenton joined the boys and they ate in silence. Joe picked at his food, hating the quiet. He associated quiet with tension now and he could never be comfortable with it.

"OK, Joe." Finally, Fenton looked up at his son. His voice was gentle. "Will you tell us what you're planning on doing now?"

"I don't know, Dad," Joe said quietly.

"Are you going to go back to LA?"

"I don't want to."

"Good." Fenton played with a leftover chip. "Son, I have to ask you. Have you got any drugs with you?"

Joe hung his head, hating himself for allowing his parents to see him as a drug taker. He'd never once thought about them as he'd laughed at the newspaper reports of his drug taking.

"Joe," Fenton said gently. "If you have, you can tell me. I'm not gonna get Frank to arrest you or anything. Do you have drugs on you?"

"No sir," Joe whispered.

"Promise me you haven't, Joe." Laura reached out to take his hand.

He looked into her eyes. "I haven't, Mom. I promise."

He saw her sigh in relief and her hand squeezed his.

"You need to make some decisions now, Joe," Fenton said.

"I know."

"We want to help you, Joe." Laura brushed his hair back from his face, like she had when he was a boy. "You just need to let us. We promise we won't judge you or preach to you. We just want to give you support."

Joe felt a lump rising in his throat and he realised he was on the verge of tears. "Thanks, Mom," he whispered.

Laura held him tight as he rested his head on her shoulder and finally allowed himself to cry. "Welcome home, baby."

Joe finally allowed himself to relax, safe once again with his family. How could he have thought they wouldn't want him back? How could he have been so stupid?

"You haven't lost everything, Joe," Frank said, grasping his brother's shoulder. "You'll always have us."

For the first time in a long while, Joe realised just how true that was.

EPILOGUE

Bailey turned eight not long after Joe's return and began playing semi-contact football. He showed immediate aptitude and was named quarterback for the Under 9s team. He continues to do well in his studies and also has places on the basketball, baseball, swimming and soccer teams for his grade. He dreams of playing in the NFL.

Biff Hooper accepted a job as Head Coach of the football team at Emerson, a junior college in Illinois. During his time back in Bayport, he helped guide the varsity team to the state championship. He hopes to sign for a Division 1 school within the next couple of years.

Chet Morton hired a manager for his Bayport restaurant and made the move to Washington, DC. There, he opened two new restaurants and managed to attract a Michelin starred head chef. He doesn't plan to stop there.

Frank returned to New York and two months later received promotion to Lieutenant on the Homicide Squad. He became the youngest member of the NYPD to hold the rank. He was instrumental in the takedown of a major Mafia family and gained a Governor's award for his work in gang-related murders. He has now ensured Bailey spends every weekend with him.

Joe stayed with his parents for several months, struggling to break free from his lifestyle of alcohol, drugs and casual sex. Having finally got himself back on track, he joined the US Marines and was assigned to the Military Police, based in Virginia. He served in Korea, Iraq, Kosovo, The Congo and Bosnia and is now based in San Diego. He regularly returns to stay with both his parents and his brother.

Now more than ever before, the Hardy brothers know just how strong the ties of blood are. And they know that no matter what happens, the bonds will never be broken.

END