Once upon a time, when Michelle and I pulled different stretches of the day/night shift schedule, I'd miss her company.
But now, things were different. Not me. I was the same. Michelle was the same. The problem was, Sarah and John, they were the same also.
Two people too many.
Two people who should've stayed a memory.
I was tired. Not tired enough to go to sleep, but tired enough to believe that throwing in a load of laundry was too exhaustive, so I settled on emptying the dishwasher to alleviate my guilt. The clock on the wall said nine, as in AM. I'd been home for about an hour and Michelle had been gone for about three.
I changed into sweats and an old college tee shirt before tackling the dishwasher. Relatively comfortable, I poured myself a glass of juice and let it sit on the counter while I mindlessly stacked the dishes in the cabinet, put away the cups and arranged the silverware in their correct slots.
The doorbell rang while I was contemplating the nutritional value of Pop Tarts versus Cinnamon Toast Crunch. "I'm coming," I shouted, grabbing the juice before I left the kitchen. Annoyed, I pasted a smile on my face. This early in the morning it could only be one person and I opened the door expecting Mrs. Brubaker from next door complaining that my morning paper had ended up once again on her property. As a matter of fact, my apology was already out of my mouth before I connected the dots.
Mrs. Brubaker looked a hell of a lot like John. John Reese. Connor. Whatever. I still seemed to have a problem wrapping my head around that.
Crap. "Is Sarah..." I stuck my head out the door and glanced quickly up the block. "Is your mother okay? Is she hurt? Is—"
John followed my line of vision then turned back to me, adjusting his backpack. "Everyone's okay."
Why didn't I believe him?
"Honest, Charley," he exhaled slowly, "everyone's fine."
I still had misgivings about how truthful John was being, but I stepped aside and invited him in with a nod of my head. I walked the door closed and locked it.
"I wanted to... I didn't get a chance to..." He sighed deeply as if he were annoyed with himself. "Thank you."
"How's he doing?"
John shrugged and his backpack slipped down. He shoved it back up to his shoulder without missing a beat. "Derek's doing," he paused, looked around, then took a minute to meet my gaze. "Okay."
"Do you need me to make a house call?"
An errant, way too long piece of hair fell into John's eyes when he shook his head. "No. No house calls."
"Eight years, Johnny, and you still need a haircut."
The smile was a flash in the pan, but I caught it, held onto it and found it hard to believe that this boy was the savior of mankind. In my eyes, this was John, the kid I'd dragged kicking and screaming out of his 'fuck you, man' attitude. Nothing more, no matter what Sarah said. No matter what I'd seen. No matter how many scary robots haunted my dreams. This was still Johnny.
"Your wife's not home today."
Statement, not a question.
"No, she's not."
He appraised my outfit with a nod. "And you just got off your shift."
The alarms bells were now deafening. "Spying on me? Us?"
"Hacked into the hospital computer. Pulled up your schedules. Yours. Your wife's." John's voice slowly faded away and there was a hiccup of silence. "Oh." He studied the rug beneath his Keds. "I guess that constitutes spying." John cleared his throat and mumbled what I believed was an apology of sorts.
I should be angry. Furious. The danger attached to him should've had me showing him the door but curiosity overrode the should'ves. "Why'd you do that, Johnny?"
And John blushed, a deep crimson, caught with his hands in the cookie jar. Obviously embarrassed, the silence that followed was awkward.
"Your mom doesn't know that you've hacked into the hospital computer, does she?"
"No... please," he stuttered. "You're not going to say anything. Right?"
"No, I'm not going to say anything."
John's sigh of relief was audible.
"But the last time I looked it was Tuesday. Fifteen-year-olds belong in school on Tuesdays. Even you. Maybe if you tell me the truth, I can manage to forget to mention the entire hacking incident."
John dropped his backpack as if it suddenly bore the weight of the world. "My mom and Cameron are on a..." He sucked in his lips, rolled his eyes as if searching for exactly how much truth he would be able to share with me. "Recon mission."
I raised my eyebrows. "Recon mission?"
"Yeah. Recon," he repeated with a tad more conviction.
I left it at that, burying my disbelief in the glass of OJ I still held in my hand.
"And... and... Derek's home. At the house. Resting."
I palmed the empty glass, assessing how much of what John was sharing was a lie and how much could be considered truthful. "And you're..."
"Here. At your house."
I tried again. "Why?"
He worried his bottom lip.
A memory surfaced, eight years' worth of dust and cobwebs obscuring the day for me. Mere weeks for John. But I remembered. Sarah had gone to work and John had played hooky. Spent the day with me. I had covered our asses and our tracks so Sarah had never known. Ever. I couldn't tell you what we'd done except the memory still made me smile. Obviously.
John lifted the side of his lip not caught in his bottom teeth in an evil, mischievous grin.
"I hope you have the school's number so I can call you in sick."
He dug into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone. "It's programmed in, just hit five and say..."
"I know what to say, Johnny." I snatched the phone from his grip. "Why don't you go into the kitchen and I'll make us some breakfast."
I grimaced; it would appear that Sarah still had a limited cooking repertoire. "No, not pancakes. Pop Tarts or cereal."
I placed the cell phone on the table in front of him.
"Thanks." He stared at it, then shoved it in his pocket.
"Your mother's going to kill me, isn't she?" I'm not sure why, but I got this gloaty feeling of pulling one over on Sarah, like she pulled one over on me.
John handed me the box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and I reached around him and placed it on the table then pointed to the cabinet. "Second one to the left. Two bowls."
"My mom can't kill me, you know." He found two mismatched bowls, brought them to the table, then made himself perfectly at home by grabbing a banana, a knife and two spoons. "She's sort of made it her number one priority to keep me alive."
"All moms are funny that way. They have this need to keep their children alive and breathing."
John looked at me, amazement registering on his face before being replaced with a ghost of a smile. "Yeah, I guess all moms do feel that way about their kids." He took the milk and juice from the fridge, put the milk on the table and opened the OJ container to take a drink.
"John?" I pointed to the container.
He shook it. "There's only a little bit left."
"And drinking from the container goes over well with your mom, does it?" Another memory slid to the forefront, of a heated argument over breakfast one school morning between Sarah and her son that had resulted in no one eating breakfast, let alone drinking the last amount of juice from the container.
John rolled his eyes and placed the juice next to the milk. "Okay, maybe for that, she'd kill me."
Cereal. Juice. Actually two bowls of cereal and a yogurt with a banana later, John finally slowed down enough to make conversation. "Guess I was tired of pancakes."
I was trying to figure out how I was going to convince Michelle that I had a change of heart and developed a sudden liking for vanilla yogurt, because from where I was sitting, John had put a nice dent in a brand new, large sized container.
John followed my gaze and pushed away the yogurt. "Oops."
"Oops is right." I got up, stacked our cereal bowls and carried them to the sink, ruffling John's hair as I passed.
In silence, we cleaned up the kitchen.
John didn't speak until after the last dish was put into the dishwasher. "I wish I could've said something."
John shoved his hands into his pockets and slouched against the kitchen counter. "Would you have believed us? Me?"
"I believe you now."
"There's proof. Cameron. Endoskeletons. Derek." He shook his head and studied the front of his Keds scrubbing along the kitchen floor. "We had no proof. When we lived with you, we had nothing. It had been such a long time, I almost pretended..." John cocked his head at me with an expression that broke my heart. "Tell me how much you would've believed us without anything to back our story up."
I couldn't answer.
"Yeah," he said sadly, "that's why I never told you."
"But your mom, she could've..."
"No, Charley, she couldn't. She wouldn't. She loves," John squeezed his eyes shut as he corrected himself. "She loved you too much."
"That makes no sense."
"To my mom it does."
Sarah had always marched to a different drummer. And if I were truthful with myself, I had known that eight years ago as much as I knew it now. I had been so enamored with her that I slipped on blinders and I pretended to play the game. I truly had no one to blame but myself. Not John. John was a kid caught in the crossfire of emotions and according to his mother, destined for a future that was beyond my comprehension. Go figure.
He glanced at me, hedging his bets, ready to cut the cord if I handed him the scissors. Leave, walk out the door and end it now. Thanks for the memories and all that jazz.
"Interested in seeing my latest acquisition?"
"You got a Harley?" He remembered and raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "Can I ride it?"
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow or two. "I don't think so."
John pushed himself away from the counter. "Okay." He groaned deeply, exaggerated loss over a missed opportunity.
"Do you have your license?"
"I know, Johnny." Kid could hotwire a car, drive a stick and handle himself as well as someone with twenty years' experience under his belt. "But you need a license."
"Jeez, man, you and my mom seem to be stuck on such stupid inconsequential things like—"
John answered me with the patented teenage look, narrowed eyes with his mouth drawn into a tight, grim lipped, 'you've got to be kidding me' expression. "Niiice. Wonder if my mom would appreciate being referred to as silly."
Contemplatively, I tapped my finger against my chin. "Hmmmm, I wonder what your mom would say about hacking and hooky."
"You always did play dirty."
Ahhh, victory was mine.
John ran his fingers over the Harley like a lover.
"What do you think?" I was proud of the refurbishing and the reconditioning I'd done on the old girl. There were still hours to be put into her to make her street worthy, but the bike was sweet. I knew it and based on the expression of longing on John's face, he knew it also.
Bending down, he examined the exhaust, touching the cool metal, prodding it.
Expectantly, John looked up at me. "Start it," he ordered.
I was amazed at how the years just fell away.
I checked my watch, shoved it under John's nose and tapped on it. "Lunch."
He glanced at me, blinked then shook his head. "I'm good."
No, he wasn't good. He was John. Always too focused on the task at hand. "I'm not. I'll be right back."
The nod was distracted, the expression one of annoyance because I'd interrupted him.
For someone who was good, John ate two of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank a large glass of milk from the platter I'd brought into the garage.
"Thanks." He saluted me with the last corner of sandwich before stuffing it into his mouth.
"Don't mention it."
"Crap." He licked the residual peanut butter off his fingers. "Remind me to toss the brown bag lunch my mother sent me with—"
"Sarah packs you lunch. Aren't you in high—"
The gaze was murderous.
"Sorry." I raised my hands in self-defense. "I forgot this was Sarah we're talking about."
"I just don't want her to know..." John rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand and left behind a streak of grease.
I grabbed his hand before it could make another pass. "Yeah, where you've been. I totally understand that." I tossed him a rag then pointed to his cheek. "This might work better."
Getting up, I positioned his head so his face was reflecting in the chrome of the bike.
"Oh." He touched his cheek, smearing the grease a tad more. "Wash up and toss lunch in garbage, gotcha."
I wasn't old but the ease in which John unfolded himself from the cement floor made me more than a bit jealous.
"I have to go. My mom's going to be picking me up from school, so I have to make it there in time—"
"I'll drive you."
"Yes. I'll drive you."
"Charley, no, it's okay."
"Go wash your face," I paused, then added. "Don't forget to throw away your lunch bag."
I'd ruined it. I'm not too sure how, but I'd ruined the pleasantness of the day. John stared out the passenger window at the passing scenery. Mute. I'd given up trying to make conversation.
"Drop me off here," he said suddenly.
"The school is—"
He leaned down, grabbed his backpack from between his legs and stuck it on his lap. "The next block. I can manage it."
"Ah, John. I didn't drive you because I didn't think you could manage it." I cleared my throat, embarrassed. "I drove you because maybe—" You're a sap, Charley "I wanted to spend more time—"
"I have to go."
I barely had time to pull the car to the curb before he popped open the door. "John, wait."
He and his backpack slid out before I could say another word then he slammed the door with such force that the car rocked.
Damn. What the hell? I sat in the car, gripping the wheel watching as he walked. Alert. Head moving side to side. Aware. Sarah had trained him well in the art of self-preservation. Something happened. Something caught John's attention and he stopped, shook his head, then turned. He smiled hugely, gave me a thumbs up then pointed back in the direction we'd come. 'Thank you. I'm okay', he mouthed, then added. 'Go home'.
I answered with a beep of the horn before putting the car into gear. We both waited for the other to make the first move. I acquiesced, beeped again then did an illegal U-turn. In my rear view mirror, I caught John crossing the street towards the school. Good. I was going to go to the store to buy some vanilla yogurt and OJ and if we played our parts well, neither Sarah nor Michelle would be none the wiser as to how we spent our day. Does omission of truth still make one a liar?