I wandered through Best Buy, feeling lost. Alone. Technically stupid and old. About two days ago, I realized that John's birthday was fast approaching, and even though I hadn't physically seen him, he'd kept in touch. Cell phones were a powerful means of communication. I meandered through the warehouse-sized store looking at all the shiny electronic goodies and by the time I was back where I started, I was just as clueless as when I'd originally walked in.
"Can I help you, sir?" I swear the greeter was no older than John.
"I need a gift." I was defeated. "For a birthday."
"Going to be sixteen. Sixteen-year-old boy."
"Does he like video games?"
The majority of advertisements that caught my eye for video games dealt with death, destruction, blood. Too close to John's real life. "No. Not video games."
John had a cell phone that had more memory and features than my computer, so I was thinking that was also a no go. "Nope."
"How about a gift certificate?"
Okay, that was worth a few moments' contemplation, but it was too impersonal.
The young employee didn't wait for my nay or yah. "Do you know his taste in music?"
Music. If she'd asked me that question eight years ago, I would've been able to answer, but now?
"Does he have an iPod?"
I wanted to say that he had a portable CD player. I remembered that well enough. But as John had reminded me, nothing had come through when they jumped. Nothing. "I think an iPod might be a wonderful idea."
In the solitude and privacy of the garage, I wrapped the presents, yeah that's right, I was a sucker for holidays and birthdays. So John ended up with the iPod, an iTunes gift card, which the girl said was a must have, and a brand spankin' new Cornhusker's tee shirt. The shirt was an afterthought and the overnight shipping charges were testament to that last minute decision.
I hid the presents in a cupboard in the garage and buried all the incriminating evidence at the bottom of the garbage pail. I wasn't hiding anything from Michelle, I really wasn't. It was just easier this way. For all concerned.
Now all I had to do was wait for his birthday.
I checked my watch before sending John a text on his birthday, timing my message between when he'd get up and when he'd leave for school. An hour later I received an answer.
"Thnxs. Happy b'day 2 me overslept. Talk later."
The message was innocuous and part of me wanted to call. Physically call, but I knew, with John, the reaching out had to come from him. I was patient, or at least I thought I was.
Until Derek and I were frantically trying to find John and Sarah, then it appeared patience wasn't a virtue of mine. Derek's control was infuriating and a part of me, okay, a large part of me wanted to throw his ass out of the ambulance. I listened to the bigger part of me, though, the one who was terrified that John and Sarah would wind up as dead as the two charred bodies under the sheets, and clung to the future uncle's calmness like a drowning man to a life preserver.
They were the walking wounded. I'd seen it before and I used experience and not my heart when I greeted Sarah and John with hesitant assurance. "Hey," I said softly, visually assessing their wounds.
They were upright and breathing. Bloody. Hurt. Alive.
And for the first time since I uncovered those bodies in front of their burning home, I could breathe.
"Sarah," Derek said softly, hands out, as if he were unsure where an uninjured safe place to touch her would be. "Why don't you let Charley have a—"
"John first." With a not so gentle push, Sarah shoved John in my direction.
He was in shock. Cold, clammy, looking right through me, past me, over my shoulder, anywhere but at me. Sarah hovered, pacing back and forth, distracting me.
"Sit down, Sarah."
She ignored me, swooping into John's space. "He hit his head." She tried to push his hair to the side, to show me, but John averted her touch, making eye contact with me for the very first time. Pain. Anger. Confusion. Emotions that went above and beyond the mess in this garage.
Derek was a savior, appearing out of nowhere, guiding Sarah away from me and John. She protested weakly, pinning her gaze on John who refused to look at her.
'I promise', I mouthed, knowing that Sarah understood.
His arms were clutching his midsection, and he was minutely bent forward, protecting whatever injury he'd sustained. God, I hope it wasn't internal. Saving Derek had been a miracle, and I wasn't too sure how many miracles any of us had left up our sleeves.
"Hey, Johnny. Wanna tell me..."
His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "My mom... her side... shoulder..."
"Okay, I'll make sure to check those out. Want to tell me what happened?"
Belly. Head. His ripped pants, bloodied knee. Glass cuts splattered across his face. The wreckage Derek and I had come across wasn't bad enough to warrant all of these injuries, years on the job had taught me that. "I know you had a car accident."
"Help me out, kiddo."
Slowly, and with shaking hands, he lifted his shirt. "It hurts. Right side."
There was bruising and I poked and prodded, watching his stoic face, as I expertly found the injury. Nothing ground under my fingers, thank god, but without the aid of an x-ray I couldn't be too sure there wasn't a hairline crack. Knowing Sarah, it was for good reason that she dragged his ass across LA, but damn it. "I'm going to bind your ribs." I pointed to his face. "And clean that up."
John hissed at my touch, pulling backwards, then the kid finally let out a whimper when his sudden movement jostled his ribcage.
Okay, that might make me seem heartless, but I wanted some reaction from him. "I'll go easy. I promise."
"Promise?" he huffed. "Yeah, I don't think so."
Strangely, I had the distinct impression he wasn't talking about me treating him.
Then I was rewarded with absolute silence and I worked slowly, efficiently, and I babbled. I know I did. I used words to separate me from my feelings of helplessness. Inadequacy. Failure. I made up for the conversation John refused to have with me.
I hung the stethoscope around my neck. "No smoke inhalation." At least that was good news.
Eyes wide in his pale face, he looked at me in horror, shaking his head, remaining mute.
"Yeah," I admitted, "I was... Derek and I were one step behind you and your mom the entire day."
It was one word, but it was something. Give me an inch, and I'd take a yard. "I got the call over the radio about the FBI and I knew..."
I stood. "This is going to hurt. You're going to have to take your shirt off so I can bind your ribs."
John lifted his head and looked at me. "What did you know, Charley?"
I sunk back down. Maybe the realization of what I'd seen today, finally hitting me. "The robot..."
Swiftly, John glanced in the direction of his downed cyborg.
"No not, her, the guy..."
"Yeah, he killed twenty FBI agents. He took out men and women who were trained..." I think that was about when I lost him. Truly lost him. Lost him as in this was the straw that broke the camel's back. "I'm so sorry, Johnny."
"Me too, Charley." His eyes filled and I knew if he started, I wouldn't be able to hold it together and I prayed for him to be strong. Or at least stronger than me.
I stood up again, picking up were I'd left off. "I need to wrap your ribs. This is going to..."
Grimacing, John picked at the end of his tee and tried to tug it upwards.
"Don't. Let me do all the work, okay?"
"No," I insisted loudly, packing away my paraphernalia.
Sarah glanced towards Derek for backup. "We need to go back to the house—"
"I'm not saying that you don't. What I'm saying, Sarah, is that," I glanced furtively around before hissing out his name, "John needs to be horizontal somewhere." Because, even though I would never mention this to Sarah, the fact that John pulled a gun on his mother and uncle led me to believe that the poor kid's brains were a touch overloaded. "And you can't just drop him off, tuck him in and say 'see ya later', not today." Again, given Sarah's condition, she also needed to be someplace where she would rest, but knowing her, I needed to appeal to her obsessive desire to protect her son rather than to her own need.
Score one for the uncle, though I wasn't too sure if his agreeing with me had more to do with his anger at John or the need to protect him.
Sarah sighed, defeated. "Drop us off, then you and Charley can go back to the house."
Because I was a glutton for punishment. Because I couldn't leave well enough alone. Because I wanted to see how the rest of this day played out. Because I knew that things would never be the same. Because my job was probably already history. Because I cared more than I had a right to, I wasn't blinking an eye at Sarah's request that I go full circle and drive Derek back to their burned-out shell of a house.
I pulled around to the back of the store front church, got out and opened the rear doors to the ambulance. Even scarier robot girl got out first, took two awkward steps then backtracked, holding out her hand to John, who used the edge of the opened door to get down. He stumbled a little and three pairs of hands reached out to help him. Cameron. Me. Sarah, all of which he ignored.
Sarah and I watched as Cameron dogged his footsteps, catching up to him.
"Wait." I stepped in front of Sarah, grabbed her right hand and turned it over, placing a blister pack of painkillers into her palm. "John's going to need this. Don't ask. Just give him. Hold him down if you have to. Dissolve it in a glass of milk. Just make him take at least one."
She blinked at me, slowly.
"Painkillers." I closed her fingers around the meds. "It'll take the edge off. Let him sleep."
"He needs to sleep," Sarah responded tonelessly.
"You both do." I kissed her on her forehead.
"Thank you." She managed a weak smile, lifted her hand with the blister pack and scraped it down the front of my shirt.
I grabbed her hand, tucking it against my chest. "Thank you for staying alive, Sarah." I swallowed hard. "For keeping John alive."
"It's what I do. It's what I'll always do." For a second I felt the weight of her leaning against me. "It's what I'll die doing."
I ignored the warning that the head of the department wanted to meet with me. I signed out, took my car from the lot and drove off. Damage was done. All the talking in the world wasn't going to fix what happened today. Gone off the radar. Aided and abetted two fugitives, three counting Derek. Used the ambulance for... well things it shouldn't have been used for.
"I'm home," I yelled, when I walked in the door. The house was silent and dark and it took me a second to return to life outside of Judgment Day, and robots, ex fiancés, uncles from the future and sixteen year old boys—and I remembered, Michelle was out for the evening with friends.
I got a beer from the fridge and wandered around the house. Things that only yesterday I had deemed important were now kicked down a rung or two of life's ladder.
There was a surrealism in the house, as if my life, my home, my white picket fence, was just a façade and reality existed in a tiny storefront place of worship. Hurriedly, I turned the TV on. Then off when the news reported the story of a burnt home, a car explosion and two, yet to be identified bodies found at the scene.
I made myself a sandwich, took a bite, then tossed it. I finished my beer, took another then went into the bathroom to shower. Marginally, I felt less out-of-bodyish after the shower, a little more in touch with Charley Dixon.
The realization hit me when I reached for the newspaper.
Today was John's birthday.
The iPod and gift card went into the garbage. No thought of return, just of getting rid of the gift, because the John I had bought it for, after today, I was pretty damn sure didn't exist anymore. The shirt. That was harder, but in the end, it met the same fate as the iPod.
I'm sorry, Johnny. So damn, sorry.
Life went on.
Today, Michelle was at work. Me? Verbal reprimand and my permanent file now held the brunt of my day with the Connors. Nothing to say. Nothing to do. Unbeknownst to Michelle, our house of cards was fragile at best, and I was waiting for the strong wind to blow into town and bring them down.
Right after Michelle left, I text'd John. Made the first step, unsure if he'd respond, but I needed closure to that day, if not to our relationship.
I spent the day waiting for a response. I ran some errands. Accomplished what I needed to accomplish, and threw in a side order of food shopping and laundry.
The text came in while I was folding the clothes fresh from the dryer. I finished, put the clothes away, then nervously paced, waiting for the doorbell.
A stranger stood before me in my living room. I didn't recognize the face, only the eyes bore the slightest resemblance to John.
"You, ummm." I waved a finger at his head.
He ran his fingers through his hair. Or what was left of it. "It was time."
A little head duck, a self-conscious smile and I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, there was John. I could see the ghost of the boy I knew and I opened my arms and drew him in, without waiting for permission.
He stiffened, but I held fast, because I needed this. Eventually, he reciprocated, fisting the back of my shirt, pulling me closer. There was the slightest change in his breathing, but I remained silent, now allowing him to take from me what he needed.
John talked while I made lunch. About the new house. Their pregnant neighbor. The truck that his mother was allowing him to drive. He didn't bring up the girl until we sat down.
He doused his fries in ketchup. "I met a girl."
"Really?" I took the ketchup from him and smothered my burger. "Where?"
"At school. Her name is Riley."
John gave a quick nod. "Yeah."
"She likes me."
To a sixteen-year-old boy, that made all the difference in the world. She liked him and for that I already liked her without even meeting the girl. "How's your mom doing with—"
No smile. This wasn't a joke, this was a warning. To me. Not to go down that road so I detoured. "How's school?"
"Mom's home schooling me."
I put down my burger. "Tell me, how's that going?"
John swept a fry through the ketchup. "With my mom? That's going about was well as Riley is."
And thus ended our safe conversations.
As we cleaned the kitchen, it was John's turn to prod. "Did you get into a lot of trouble for helping us?"
I took the plates from his hands and put them into the soapy water. "It's fine."
There was hesitation, as if John could see right through my lie and I waited for him to call me on it, glad when he didn't. "How's the ribs?"
He drew a deep breath. "Good. Thank you for fixing me and my mom."
"Try not to do that again, okay?"
John looked at me and knew. Guess both he and Michelle had my tell nailed. "When are you leaving?"
He closed his eyes. Inhaled. Exhaled. Then opened them. "Good. It's not safe for you anymore."
I reached for the towel, dried off my hands and tossed it to the side. "Come. I have to show you something."
In panic mode, John did a three sixty in the garage. "Where's the Harley?"
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a key ring: two keys and a circular tab.
"Hold out your hand."
"No." John backed away from me.
I took one step forward, grabbed his hands and deposited the keys in his palm, like I had with Sarah and the medication. "Yes."
I touched his sheared head. "Because it's time."
"I don't... I don't..." He couldn't speak.
"My legacy to you. One key is for a storage unit, the address and number are written on the tag. Paid for two years." I showed him the information on the tag. "See?"
I continued as if he wasn't speaking. "The other key is for the bike. There are tools in the unit also. Take care of her, okay? Be gentle. She's a tough one, but that doesn't mean she doesn't need your love."
"I'll keep her safe for you. I promise."
I think the both of us knew we weren't only talking about the Harley.
It was time. No matter how long we procrastinated, saying goodbye wasn't going to get any easier.
"Remember what I told you when you call, the code. Right?"
"I remember, Johnny."
The smile, though tentative, was a start. "The bike, it's our secret."
I would never be able to run far enough away from Sarah's wrath for it not to be a secret. Not if I wanted to live. "Our secret."
John stood, leaning against the closed front door, his gaze roaming around the room.
"Are you looking for something?"
"No. Just wishing things would've been different."
John couldn't play let's pretend anymore and with me leaving, there were no more places for him to go to escape his future. I love my wife, but there was a part of me that wished things would've played out differently, and right now, at this moment, I'd give up everything just to wipe the despair from his face.
Cautiously, John reached out and touched my left shoulder. "I should've stayed that night. Spoken to you..." He dropped his head below his shoulders, staring at the floor. "But I didn't want to lie anymore. Not to you."
"Hey." I tapped his chin until John lifted his head and made eye contact. "At least this time we can say goodbye."
"No pancakes," he chuckled
"Burgers and fries are much better."
"Shush. Don't let your mom hear you say that." I clapped his bicep. "You know, sometimes goodbye is like a second chance."
Based on the expression on his face, John was pretty damn clueless. "A second chance to do what?"
"To say all the things you didn't get a chance to say the first time. That you didn't have time to say." Or the guts, I silently added.
"We're good, Charley. You don't have to," he begged, "make this into a Hallmark moment or anything."
Too late. "I'm so proud of you, Johnny."
Quickly, he turned and fumbled with the door knob. He got the door opened, but I leaned over him, slammed it shut and he spun around. He was... angry? The set of his jaw. The fists by his side. Yeah, definitely pissed off.
"Why is that so hard to hear?"
"Because I've done nothing to deserve your pride."
Jeez, between him and his mother, I've never met two people who knew how to infuriatingly push my buttons. I threw up my hands in defeat and John straightened his shoulders, gearing for a fight.
Crap. Fighting fire with fire wasn't going to prove anything and I counted to ten, then exhaled slowly. Let's try this again. "I won't lie to you. I won't tell you that things will get better, because you and I both know the truth. But for what has passed and for what the future holds, I couldn't be prouder than if you were my son."
Silence. Maybe that was a little more than he could handle and John deflated before my eyes.
"A second chance to say goodbye?" he whispered.
"Yeah, a second chance."
"I'm sixteen years old and I was never happier than when mom and I lived with you. Or here. And I think..." He wiped his face in the crook of his raised arm. "I'm going to need those memories to remember what the battle is all about."
I don't think his words deserved a thank you, truthfully, I wasn't sure what they warranted, only that I was unable to speak and my vision swam behind an embarrassing curtain of tears.
"Payback," he sniffed, wearing an evil smile.
"Bastard," I responded, hiding my emotions behind throat clearing.
Once again, John's glance swept the room. "Our secret?" he said patting the pocket with the key ring.
Our visits. This house. Cutting school. Our friendship. Breakfast. Lunches. The Harley. Yeah. All of it. "Our secret."
"Don't forget the code, Charley."
"I won't." I opened the door, time to kick the baby chick outta the nest. "Nice truck."
John smiled at the monster parked at the curb. "Not as nice as the Harley."
And he did. And I watched from the doorway and felt like every parent must feel who sends their child off to war. A little lost.
Maybe even a little left out of their battle.
And a lot heartbroken.