Orchestration of One
One day John got sick. I didn't know what was wrong with him and I had no savings. No insurance. Hal pulled out a wad of bills, gave it to me and told me to take John to the doctor. He said as long as I needed help, he'd be there. Said I could count on him, no strings attached.
From Sarah Connor to Charley Dixon in To the Lighthouse.
I hated this time of day. The clock by the cash register crawled forward, teasingly moving seconds and not minutes. The lunch crowd was but a memory and the diner was pin drop quiet.
"Rosalie, please, for God's sake find something for Sarah to do, she's driving me nuts with her pacing."
"Shush, George," Rosalie answered in her Nebraskan twang. She turned to me so her exasperated eye roll was hidden from George. "Go fill the ketchup bottles, honey. Or the salt shakers. Arrange the menus. Something."
In other words, just make George happy.
I was on my second circuit, filling already filled condiment jars on the tables. Rosalie began to straighten out the menus while George took over the pacing.
George and Rosalie Orlando made up for the shitty salary they paid me by worrying about John. The diner was holding its own. Barely. The middle-aged couple knew it now and they'd known when they'd hired me. They were just trying to keep it together for a few more years so they would be able to retire and join their daughter in California. They may not be the most astute business people in the world, but they'd nailed my Achilles' heel in less than fifteen minutes after meeting me. John.
"Food's plentiful here. He'd never go hungry," Rosalie had promised when I'd balked at the money she'd offered.
"Don't forget the house," George had added. "You'll have a roof over your heads. Free. No charge. Just keep the place clean and pay utilities. It's been sitting empty too long. We've had problems. You'd be doing us a favor." George had gone for the jugular, throwing in the tiny, drafty one bedroom, one pull-out sleeper couch five blocks from the diner, house they also owned.
They were desperate enough to trust me, a stranger.
I was even more desperate to trust them. With food and a roof over our heads, and I hadn't been able to resist.
That had been six months ago.
"You're late," I said the second John stepped foot into the diner.
"Hey George. Rosalie." John trudged past me, tossed his backpack onto the table of his favorite booth and slid in.
"You're late," I repeated, flicking my order pad on the edge of the table.
"You know, maybe if you put a little more effort in your greeting, your tips wouldn't suck," he answered while rummaging around in his backpack.
"Children, play nice." Rosalie reached around me and placed a huge glass of chocolate milk on the table.
He offered her a half smile but waited until she walked away before moving the drink to the side.
"I'm really not in the mood." He made a face, ignoring my line of questioning and pushed the chocolate milk even further across the table.
A diversionary tactic. Hell, he'd learned from the best but experience should've taught him that I was like a dog with a bone. You needed to offer me something a bit more tempting for me to release the prize.
"You're twenty minutes late." I smiled in response to his patented teenage narrow-eyed glare. "You made George pace."
"The bus broke down and we had to wait for a new one, okay?" He found a thumb sized gnawed pencil in a side pocket of his backpack and opened one of his books. Social Studies. John hated history for more reasons than the average ninth grader and I couldn't say I blamed him.
"Here," From my apron pocket, I presented him with a newly sharpened number 2 pencil, complete with an eraser. "Try not to leave teeth marks."
"You're gnawing on the pencil." I shoved his backpack out of the way and put down a burger deluxe platter. "Eat. It's getting late."
Rosalie and George were wonderful. Food. A roof. The occasional worry filled pacing, but business was business and John was taking up paying customer space, especially on Wednesday.
He pushed the plate away, then tugged his backpack closer. "I have a lot of work to do."
I plucked the pencil from his grip, slammed the book shut and pointed to the plate. "Eat it." I hissed the words through gritted teeth, keeping a smile on my face. Food is freely offered, but not to be wasted.
"You should've asked. I'm not hungry." He began to shove the books into the depths of his backpack. "I'll eat a peanut butter sandwich—"
"There's no bread."
"You're being difficult, Mom."
"Me?" I smiled then quickly leaned over and ruffled his hair. "You're the one…"
He ducked away from me, shooting a quick glance over his shoulder. "Please don't do that."
"Oh, embarrassing you much?"
"I'm going to go." He began to slide out the both, prodding my leg with his knee.
"Pack it up, I'll take it home."
"John." I backed up to let him out.
"Mom, please," he begged as he slung his backpack over one shoulder. "You said yourself, it's getting late." He glanced at the clock on the wall; he knew the diner rules as well as I did. "I have a lot of work."
"Stop." I grabbed his arm before he could take a step. "Let me pack this up."
"That's what I said." He rolled his eyes at me then dogged my heels on the way to the kitchen.
George watched what I was doing with interest. "What's the matter, don't like my cooking?"
"No one makes a burger like you, George." John held the swinging door opened with his hip. "But I got a lotta homework…"
George wagged his spatula at John. "All work and no play."
John didn't know the meaning of play. It wasn't in our vocabulary, but he smiled at George and accepted the Styrofoam container from me with a half hearted kiss. "I know. Call the second I get home."
I patted his cheek and enjoyed his embarrassment as I went all mommy on him when I zipped up his sweatshirt. "Don't forget."
He sighed. "Do I ever?"
"There's always a first time," I said seriously.
John got as far as the diner door when Rosalie called his name.
"John." In her hand she had a cup with a lid. "Your chocolate milk."
The phone by the register rang as I was seating customers. Mindlessly, I smiled at their inane chatter about the weather as I listened to Rosalie's one sided conversation.
She gave me the thumbs up when I glanced in her direction.
John was home.
"Mr. Beasley," I said with a smile.
"Hal. How many times do I have to remind you?"
"Hal," I repeated, making my millionth silent apology to my mom who would've beaten my ass for not referring to this gentleman as mister.
"There you go, was that so hard?" He took off his trench coat, hung it over the empty chair then did a visual assessment of the diner. "John?"
I pretended not to notice the look of disappointment on his face. "Homework. He got his dinner to go."
"Boy is too serious."
Like mother like son, but I couldn't exactly go into that with him. "John's fourteen... eventually he'll be fifteen. Seriousness is part of a teen's genetic makeup."
Hal took a seat, opened up the menu as if placing an order, then glared at me over the top of the laminated pages. "He's a good boy," he reprimanded.
Opened mouth, I feigned surprise. "Yes, he is."
"He needs to be a kid."
I pasted a waitressy sort of smile on my face as if I was contemplating and possibly even considering Hal's words of wisdom.
"You're not listening to a thing I'm saying, are you, Sarah?"
"Not at all, Hal." I reached for my pencil, but with a shake of my head I remembered it was in John's possession.
Hal chuckled as he leaned over, reached into a pocket of his trench coat and pulled out a brand new mechanical, crystal green pencil. "This will replace the one you lent John."
I was caught off guard and it wasn't a great feeling. The surprise and trepidation must've shown on my face.
"Sarah, it's just a pencil. I've got a more than a handful of them, honest. Besides," he said, dropping his voice down to whisper, "how can you do your job without a writing implement?"
"I have a great memory and I pretty much know what everyone's going to order," I quipped.
"Yeah?" He challenged me with a slight nod.
"Yeah," I answered back. "If it's Wednesday, you must want meatloaf."
"No," he said with the slightest twitch to his lips. "Fried chicken. So here," he said insistently, waving the pencil in my face, "take this so I know that you'll get my order right."
Wednesdays sucked. We run this buy-one-meal-get-the-second-half-off that draws the townspeople into the diner like flies to those stupid insect torture strips. Peggy, a part time waitress, usually worked on Wednesday, but not tonight. Kids were sick. Only an hour into the dinner service, I was tired of being pleasant and I wanted to go home.
But for Hal I managed to dredge up a little more nicety when I handed him the check. "How was the fried chicken?"
"Eh?" The man had never complained about anything. For six months I've seen him three times a day. If you did the math, those were a lot of meals. But never once had he ever said anything even resembling a derogatory remark. Until now.
"Not as good as my wife's."
And my heart broke just a little because there was no answer to that, and I knew not even a smile was going to cut it. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He wiped his mouth with the napkin, then placed it on the table. "Just remind me not to order the chicken anytime in the near future."
"I promise." Whatever else I was going to say got lost in table two's desire to have their drinks refilled right this second.
When I returned later to Hal's table, the tip, which was more than the bill, was anchored down by a blister pack of mechanical pencils, with a note written on a paper napkin. Don't forget to share these with John.
It had been a long time since anyone had given me a gift, even if I did have to share.
John was fast asleep on the couch. My couch. The one that turned into a bed. The visual that had kept me going the last two hours of my shift.
I wasn't happy and I certainly didn't feel like sharing. Mechanical pencils were one thing. Sharing my bed was something complete different.
His schoolbooks were strewn the length of the coffee table. The Styrofoam container was opened and the top and bottom parts of the hamburger roll had been separated from the hardened hockey puck circle of meat. The fries hadn't been touched and the lettuce, tomato and onion rings had seen better days. There was an opened peanut butter jar with a knife stabbed in the middle balanced precariously on a binder. My guess was that John found the bread to make his peanut butter sandwich. Stubborn SOB.
"I'm guessing you didn't put the laundry away."
His silence was pretty much my answer to the question. "Yeah, that's what I figured." I shook the back of the couch and he stirred but didn't acknowledge me. Giving in to the one tried and true method that always worked, I pushed aside some books, plunked my uniformed ass on the table, and I counted, making it to twenty before he awakened with a gasp.
John sprung up then fell back to the couch with a groan. "I hate when you do that."
"And I hate when you fall asleep on the couch. Your books are all over the table and what the hell did you do with your dinner? Never mind the laundry I asked you to fold and put away."
It took John a few seconds to process my rant before he burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?"
"You sound like a…" He paused as if searching for a word that wouldn't anger me. "Mom."
"I am a mom."
He stared at me, shaking his head.
I hadn't realized that eyebrows could touch one's hairline. "What?"
"You were yelling."
"I've never yelled before?" I was too tired to play this game.
John rubbed his eyes and ground the heel of his palm into his forehead, making it obvious I wasn't the only tired Connor in the room. "You were yelling mom things." His voice trailed off.
"Mom things?" It took a heartbeat of silence. Ahhh. Got it. "I never yell about mom things," I said with conviction.
"No," he said softly, ducking his head. "It was kinda nice."
This time it was my turn to laugh. "You'll need to remember that next time I'm screaming at you to fold the laundry. Or clean the bathroom. Or take out the garbage."
I showered. John cleaned up, sorta, but he was already sleeping in his own bed by the time I was geared up, ready to yell again.
I slept like the dead and I was pissed because a gun tucked against my body should never be enough security for me to believe that I could let my guard down.
Translation. I was bitchy and uncommunicative.
On a good day, John grunted in my general direction during breakfast. Today, well, today didn't even rate a good day. He was sullen and doing nothing but chasing the cereal around his bowl with the spoon.
I snatched the bowl from him. "If you didn't want it, all you had to do was open your mouth."
I was subjected to a glare that would have left a normal soccer mom cowering but I wasn't normal, nor was I a soccer mom, and it took John mere seconds before he remembered that.
Problem was, John wasn't exactly on the front of a box of Wheaties either and he stomped out of the kitchen muttering under his breath.
I tossed the cereal in the garbage, spoon, bowl, milk and all, so much for breakfast being the most important meal of the day.
Every morning I dropped John off at school. That was the routine. No morning bus, we just had Mom's taxi service, but sometimes routines were made to be broken. "How about we see if George can make you an egg sandwich?"
He shook his head. "I'm okay," he whispered.
"I'm not hungry," John added, shutting me down.
It wasn't until we pulled up in front of the school that I remembered. "I didn't make you lunch." Crap.
"There wasn't bread." Not accusatory, just a statement. A life borne of making do.
"I know, but…" I'd thrown out his breakfast and I pounded the wheel in frustration over my own stupidity.
"Mom," he said gently. "It's. Oh. Kay."
As we waited for the line of cars to move forward, I frantically scrounged around the car for change. Nickel. Dime. Quarter.
"Stop it, Mom."
Ignoring his protest, I emptied my pockets on the console and managed to find another three quarters. "A dollar fifteen. That's good for something right? An apple? A bag of pretzels?"
He hesitated, embarrassed, though no one could see what was going on.
"Take it," I ordered, feeling like a failure because I sucked at the mommy thing this morning. Truthfully, I've sucked at the mommy thing a lot. "George will make you whatever you want today."
Horns started honking, I was taking too long, not following the unwritten drop off rules. "Shut the fuck up," I yelled.
John took the money, shoved it into the pocket of his hoody and was out of the truck before I even had time to regain my composure.
"You're late," Rosalie commented as I was hanging up my sweater.
"Yeah, well, shit happens," I barked, tying on my apron. It wasn't like there was anyone even in the diner but Hal, who was reading the paper, nursing a cup of coffee.
"I was just worried, Sarah," she said softly.
Oh. God. "I'm sorry. Bad morning." Bad life.
"I figured." She shouldered me towards Hal. "He was worried also, but don't tell him I told you so."
"Never," I answered, smiling for the first time today. I tapped the table with my green pencil and Hal looked up, but he wasn't smiling.
"Yup?" I threw the ball back into his court, "You?"
"I've had better."
"Me, too." Safe enough answer.
"Yeah, John had a bad morning also."
Hal laughed. "I was going to ask if your bad morning had to do with John, but based on your answer I'm guessing that was a yes."
"I didn't have a great Mom morning."
"Welcome to parenthood, Sarah Reese." He opened the menu and closed it without even reading. "Cheese omelet with pancakes instead of toast."
I placed his order then went back to refresh his coffee. "You never said."
"Said?" he asked without glancing up from the crossword puzzle he was working on.
"Why your morning was bad?" Honest, I was only asking because he'd asked me. I was being polite.
I had his attention, drawing his concentration away from the paper. "Today's my anniversary. Would've been forty-one years today."
"Oh, Sarah, don't be. We were luckier than most. I loved her. She loved me. To be loved by someone for that long is a gift."
When Rosalie found me crying in the bathroom ten minutes later, I pleaded PMS with enough sincerity that I convinced her. And maybe, just maybe, myself also.
Breakfast blended into lunch thanks to a group of women and strollers that filled the diner with enough noise that left George grumbling until they rolled out just before the lunch crown rolled in.
The mothers and their kids didn't do anything to improve my day. Jealousy made me short tempered enough to want to share my bad mood.
"John's father died before he was born," I confessed to Hal even before I took his lunch order. "He didn't even know I was pregnant. He died on a mission." You know, if I repeated this rose colored version enough times…
"I'm sorry. So very sorry, Sarah."
"Me, too." I walked away without even taking his order and when I brought him a BLT on rye toast with mayo on the side because that was his regular Thursday order, he didn't even say anything.
"I loved him," I told Hal when I brought him his iced tea.
Hal's smile was slow. "Good. Just make sure you remember to let John know that."
"God help the poor kid, he's probably tired of me talking about his dad."
"Believe me, he's not. Just keep talking. He'll keep listening."
The phone call came around one-thirty. Hal was gone. Most of the lunch crowd was gone and I was cleaning the counter, totally not paying attention.
"Sarah," Rosalie said with a touch more force. "It's John's school."
I broke the speed limit, parked in a reserved parking spot, ran into the school, showed ID, and followed the hall monitor's directions to the nurse's office.
He was sitting in a chair next to the nurse's desk, his backpack was in his lap, held in place by this arms crossed over the top. His head was resting on the pillow his arms had created, eyes closed facing me. He looked like crap. Shit.
"Hey," I said softly, resting my hand on the back of his exposed neck. Warm to the touch. This day just kept getting better and better.
He untangled himself slowly and raised his head even more slowly, blinking at me.
The nurse was older than I was by a few years, but her smile was quick and her eyes kind. "John's not feeling too well."
"Thank you for calling me."
"Actually, John and I had sort of an argument over that."
My son had already protectively glued himself against my side. "I told her I was okay and not to bother you at work."
"Don't worry," I soothed, tugging on the strap of his backpack.
"I'm. Fine." He glared at the nurse then at me.
She obviously believed children should be seen and not heard as she dismissed John with a tolerant smile. "He had a fever over hundred and one, Ms. Reese, so based on school policy, no school tomorrow. He needs to be fever-free for twenty four hours."
"Do I have to sign him out somewhere?"
"How did you end up in the nurse's office?" Not the most motherly of questions, but given our life and my track record, it was probably the most apropos.
John honored me with a one shouldered shrug.
"Did you go down there yourself?"
"Nurse's office puts you on the radar."
After so many years, John managed a great imitation of me, but I wasn't flattered. "Answer the question."
Ah yes, Ms. Higgins. Nice woman. Taught math. A little too involved and little too busybody for my taste. She'd picked John up as a lost soul the day the kid had started school which had set off every alarm I had. I learned that if I stepped back instead of going with the head to head approach with her, things worked much better. Maybe I'd stepped back a wee bit too much. "What did Higgins do?"
"Said I looked sick. I said I was fine." John sighed. "Arguing with Ms. Higgins would've put me on the radar faster than me just hauling my ass down to the nurse's office."
"Smart boy." With my eyes glued to the road, I reached over, ruffled his hair and was surprised when John tolerated my hand skimming down and coming to rest on his cheek. "You're warm."
He leaned into my touch but remained silent. A sickening feeling fluttered around my heart before settling in the pit of my stomach. John was more than warm, he was hot. My mind started connecting the dots. Fever meant Tylenol, of which there was none in the house. Sick meant juice. Tea. Toast. This Mother Hubbard's cupboards were bare.
Hal's breakfast and lunch tips made up the majority of money nestled in the pocket of my uniform. The money would be enough to cover what we needed.
The corner grocery store was probably not the best place to stop, the prices were definitely more expensive than the larger chain store about five miles to the north, but this was closer and familiar. And just in case I was a buck or two short, the owner knew me, trusted me and really liked John. Not too sure, though, how much he was going to like John after he cleaned up my son's puke in the parking lot.
I rested the two plastic bags on the hood of the car. "Just let me know when you've finished."
John nodded, raised his arm, spit on the ground, then picked up the hem of his shirt to wipe his mouth.
"What the hell?" I moved into his personal space, made sure to step over whatever a dollar fifteen had bought him for lunch, and ran my hand over his exposed belly.
"Huh?" He glanced down, trying to figure out what had captured my interest.
The rash was bright red, prickly looking and spattered across his abdomen. "Does this hurt? Itch? How long have you had this?"
John jerked from my grasp and tugged down his shirt. "No. No. And I have no idea."
I didn't know what I had expected when I'd gotten the phone call from John's school. I just hadn't expected John to be sick, sick. Stupidly, I had promised Rosalie that I'd be back.
Since John had walked upright, he'd never really been ill. Cough, cold, reaction to immunizations, yeah, but this? I was totally lost and flying by the seat of my pants, racking my brain to remember what my mother had done when I was sick. I was hovering and John was sorta cowering from my attention.
"How about some tea? Toast? Tylenol? A nap on the couch?"
"Go to work."
"You're sick," I countered.
"I hate tea. I puked up my lunch so I'm thinking toast isn't exactly a good idea. Tylenol and a glass of water, and you going to work. Yup, sounds like a plan to me."
Actually we sort of compromised. He got the Tylenol. Juice. A mug of tea with half the sugar bowl dumped into it. He wouldn't budge on the toast but I got him to lie down on the couch.
I had my keys in my hands. I was doing what he asked. Damn, I didn't feel good about it, but I was doing it. "Call me," I ordered, fighting the urge to make him turn off the TV and crawl into his own bed.
"It's Thursday, you're home by eight." He brought his arm up from underneath the blanket and squinted at his watch. "It's already three-thirty; I'll be fine for a few hours." Roles reversed, he smiled at me and pointed to the door.
He watched me get my coat and with no objections, studied my movements as I put two Tylenol and a glass of water on the rickety coffee table. "Take these at seven-thirty." I kissed his hot cheek as I laid the gun gently on the couch, wishing that having a fever was the least of our worries.
"I bet it's just viral," Rosalie offered when she caught me checking the clock again.
"Yeah, viral," I repeatedly stupidly.
"Kids are resilient," Rosalie patted my arm, "much more than their parents."
Right now I was thinking John and I were running neck to neck with resiliency.
Thank you, Lord. Hal had timing most excellent and I was beyond grateful when I saw the tall, grey haired man walk into the diner.
"Hey." I stood patiently waiting for him to shake out his trench coat. "It's raining?" I glanced out the front window, wondering when the hell I'd missed that, but then it would appear that I missed a lot of things today.
"Just started." Hal went to sit, then stopped, canted his head and studied me. "What's wrong?"
I was that obvious? "Just been a sucky day."
"Hasn't gotten any better?" Dropping his coat over the back of the chair, he sat, pushing away the menu. "Hamburger with all the trimmings. Chocolate shake."
That wasn't his usual Thursday fare. "Coming right up."
I should've seen that one coming. "He's home."
"Why? It's not late." He checked his watch.
"He's home sick. Look, let me go put in your order so you can—"
"John's sick and you're here?"
Insert knife, turn. "I'll be back with your order." Leaving the table was easier than telling the man to 'mind his own fuckin' business', keeping myself busy and occupied when there wasn't another customer in the diner, wasn't so easy.
"Did you and Hal have a fight?" Rosalie asked.
"Because he just up and left."
'Good riddance', my mind yelled, but my feet were already running the length of the diner and out the door. I was younger than him and had spent the majority of my life on the run so I caught up to him before he had his car door opened. "Don't go."
"My wife always told me I never knew when to keep my mouth shut."
"My mother always told me that I had an attitude problem."
"I can see where your mom was coming from."
I bristled but then remembered that because of this man's tips there was Tylenol, juice and bread in my house. "Ditto," I answered, "I mean with that wife thing."
"I didn't mean to overstep my boundaries."
"You didn't. I've been alone, we've been alone for so long," I pushed my wet hair from my face, "that it's hard to…" I tried to think of the word I was looking for.
He took my hand, slowly, gently as if he was afraid that I would bolt. There was nothing sexual in his touch. No ulterior motive in his reaching out for me. "I understand. Oh god… do I understand. After Lisa died, being alone was easier. No fuss. No muss. I didn't have to live, I just had to exist."
"Existing is sometimes just as hard."
"My wife would always tell me that there's no music in an orchestra of one." He smiled, "That's silly, I know, but I didn't think I understood what she meant until now. Don't do this to yourself," he paused, "or to John, both of you are too young to be this disillusioned. Unhappy. Lonely."
Since Pescadero, I had never wanted to tell someone about Judgment Day, terminators, John and Kyle as much as I wanted to share with Hal Beasley. I actually hesitated, thinking how much this secret was destroying me. But that would've been wrong, sharing wasn't caring. In this instance, I would've been signing his death warrant. And I couldn't. Not for the man who gave out mechanical pencils. Not for someone who cared. Though it was damned tempting, even I wasn't that selfish. "You're getting wet." I tugged on the sleeve of his coat.
I wasn't just wet. I was soaked, dripping puddles on the floor of the diner.
Hal's burger, I was sure, was a little on the dry side, but he didn't complain. Rosalie, on the other hand, more than made up for his silence.
"Go dry yourself off," she tsk'd, flicking a strand of hair off my shoulder.
"I'll be fine."
"No. You won't," she countered, thinking about her options. "You'll get sick. You'll be off from work and I'll have to deal with George all by my lonesome." She gave an exaggerated shudder. "Please, go home. Take a nice warm shower. Take care of your boy."
"It's only six, and John's fine," I hurriedly added.
"Honey, on a night like this, believe me, no one's beating down the door. I can handle it. Honest."
I grabbed my coat, though its protection was moot, then stopped by Hal's table. "I'm cutting out early."
He looked up from his mission of laboriously dipping his fries into the chocolate shake. "Good. Go home." He waved a chocolate-covered fry at me. "Dry off and take care of John."
"Sorry about before… and your dinner."
"Don't be. I think this is probably what I wanted to begin with." Hal sank the fry deep into the shake. "Go," he insisted when a flash of lightning lit up the diner.
John was sleeping and I took a step forward then back, deciding to take a warm shower and change before assessing him. For now, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest was enough of a comfort.
The well-worn sweats were a little bit of heaven on Earth. Dry and fairly warm, I indulged in a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, took it to the coffee table, sat on the edge, moved the gun out of his reach then mindlessly began chewing, waiting for John to wake up.
And I waited.
And I waited.
Screw this. I tossed the uneaten half of the sandwich on the table and laid the back of my hand across his cheek. Before warm had bordered on hot, now he was just hot. Really hot.
"John." I wasn't going for the soothing wake up call. There wasn't any love or tenderness in my voice, there was terror as I shook his shoulder.
Awkwardly, he flipped onto his back, getting comfortable before opening his eyes. "I'm up."
"Yeah, I can see that." I looked around, swiveled my head in all directions. "John, where's the Tylenol I left you?"
He scrubbed at his face, then left his sprawled hand covering his eyes, mumbling something I couldn't understand.
Sighing, I pushed down his hand. "Try again."
"You told me to take them. Took them." His voice was whisper soft, strained.
Considering it was now only a little after six and those Tylenol weren't due for ingestion until seven thirty, I was thinking those little pills weren't doing shit for his fever.
He yawned, stopped mid-exhalation and grabbed the base of his throat. "Ow," he mewled. "Hurts." John knuckled the pain all the way down his neck, tugging and pulling away the collar of his shirt.
"Stop." I grabbed his hand. "Sit up," I ordered.
And John did. Sick as he was, he obeyed. Complained and groaned, but he listened.
The lamp's illumination hit differently from this angle. Without preamble, I ripped off the blanket, and made a mental note somewhere that John was now wearing numerous layers of clothing, before I tugged up his shirts. The rash had traveled north, spreading and overpowering his upper body.
"I know." John fought back, pulling back into place what I'd moved up and over. "I'm cold." He dragged the blanket up around his shoulders and glared at me.
I hadn't asked that question, but that explained why John had donned every single thing he owned. "Tea might help."
Tea was great going down. It took forever to drink, sweetened with enough sugar to give even Captin Crunch diabetes; however, John managed one mug before announcing in a whispery voice that he was done.
Yeah he was, because two steps before he made it to his bedroom, the tea came back up, much easier than it had gone down.
As I cleaned up my son, it dawned on me how out of my element I was because in no uncertain terms, I'd rather fend off terminators than viruses and clean up puke.
By four-thirty, I dragged him to bed. He'd finally fallen into a fitful sleep and I stopped obsessively touching his forehead, playing 'guess how high the fever was' game. Now, I was obsessively going through the house trying to locate pawnable items. My mother's wedding ring was long gone. Her grandmother's cross. My cross. My father's watch and college ring. My grandmother's silver. My mother's pearl earrings. Gone.
John needed a doctor and I had twenty dollars to my name. Nothing in any bank anywhere, but I had guns and ammunition, which were worth something to someone, somewhere. The gun shop where I'd bought them was two counties over and didn't open until ten.
I dumped the books from his backpack onto the floor then stuffed in there whatever weapons would fit. With my back up against the headboard, I sat next to him in bed, clutching the backpack to my midsection, waiting for the sun to come up.
By seven he was up. He still looked horrible, but the Tylenol and tea stayed down this time. John glanced over but made no mention of why his backpack was sitting by the front door.
"I'm going to work for a little while." I hated that I was leaving him, but morning tips, especially Hal's, were beckoning.
"I'll be back by twelve."
He nodded again, sliding down into the couch, becoming one with the cushions. I didn't ask how he felt. John didn't ask why I would be back before the Friday afternoon lunch crowd. It was better that way. Neither of us would have to lie.
I got as far as slinging his backpack over my shoulder before I remembered. I stuck my hand in, pulled out a 9 millimeter, then without a word laid it on the coffee table.
George and Rosalie asked about John, made empathetic noises in all the right places and understood why I was leaving early, but that was it.
Hal wasn't as understanding. "Why are you here?" he barked at me as I poured his morning cup of coffee. "Shouldn't you be home with John?"
I didn't answer. I smiled pleasantly and walked away. I wouldn't get into this with anyone. I just needed to stay focused. Be focused.
The apology came when I placed his scrambled egg on a roll on top of his paper. "I'm so sorry, Sarah. Once more, I overstepped my boundaries. Can we try again?" Hal didn't wait for me to answer, he moved the plate to the side, folded his hands like a little school boy and gave me a winning smile. "How's John feeling?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "He's doing okay."
Hal was hurt. The change in expression was instantaneous. "Good," he said sharply, reaching for his sandwich.
Like an idiot I stood there, waiting for him to say that he'd seen right through my lie, hoping that he'd corner me into confessing and sharing my burden. But he didn't and I hated myself for caring what he thought.
I dropped a stack of plates while cleaning off a table, something I'd never done. They crashed, shattering in a thousand directions and it wasn't until Rosalie touched my arm that I realized I was just standing, staring at the carnage I'd created.
"I'm sorry," I stuttered, fighting her grip so I could start the clean up.
"Sarah, honey," she said with the gentlest of kisses to my temple. "Go home and take care of John, I've got this."
If I would've done more than nod, I'd have burst into tears.
Hal called my name but I kept digging through my pockets trying to find my car keys. I was coming up empty and panicking, quickly pressing my face up against the driver's window just to make sure I hadn't been distracted enough to leave them in the ignition.
"You left them on the counter."
"Oh, thank you." I plucked the dangling keys from Hal's fingers, turned my back on him, and tried to fit the key in the lock.
"Your hands are shaking."
"They're not." I've faced off against terminators. Excluding John, I've buried anyone who's ever meant anything to me. I've escaped from a mental institution and am a wanted fugitive, there was no way my hands were shaking.
"Let me help."
"No," I yelled, jerking backwards, watching in horrified fascination when the keys flew out of my hand and skidded to a stop three parking spots to my left.
Hal left my side and retrieved the keys. This time he bypassed giving them to me and opened the truck's door. He gave a gentlemanly bow as he held the door open.
I couldn't. I just couldn't. I slammed the door and pivoted, catching Hal so much by surprise that he backed up two steps. "John's sick. Really sick. Fever. Rash. Puking up his guts. He needs a doctor and I have no money. No savings. No insurance. I was hoping…" I waved my hand in front of my face. "Never mind, I don't have a clue what I was hoping."
The wad of bills appeared in his fist without a second's hesitation.
Pennies from heaven.
Maybe there was a God.
"What do you want?"
"What do you mean, what do I want?"
"In exchange for the money." I flippantly flicked the money in his hands.
"You've already given me what I wanted. What Lisa told me I needed. You. John. Heck, even Rosalie and George. You're my orchestra. After Lisa died I never thought there'd be any joy in my life." Hal took my right hand, turned it over and pressed the money into my hand, closing my fingers around the cash.
"I know you can't. Six months of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with you and I know you can't take that money, but it's not for you, Sarah, it's for John. Take him to the doctor."
I was speechless. I knew I should be muttering words of gratitude, but I was incapable of even forming a simple thank you.
"I just wanted you to know that as long as you need help, I'm here. Anything. Anytime. Anywhere. No strings attached."
The five minute throat swab test the doctor performed diagnosed my son with strep throat and the rash bumped it up to scarlet fever, and as his mother I received the diagnosis of a horrible parent for waiting as long as I did before seeking medical intervention. And with John's head resting on my shoulders while we sat in the doctor's office, I did my penance and sat quietly while I got a lecture from the tired, young doctor.
For him I managed a thank you and accepted the list of instructions and multitude of prescriptions with a smile.
There was money to pay cash for the visit, for the drugs and enough left over to buy a few other things. Like Motrin. A thermometer. Bread. Some fresh fruit. And pancake batter. Syrup. Butter. And a tiny container of chocolate peanut butter ice cream.
John slept on and off the rest of Friday. I woke him to take his meds and he was almost scary with his silent compliance. I tried to entice him with ice cream but he chose to sleep through dinner.
By Friday evening I returned all the guns to their hiding places and John's books back to the backpack. I fell asleep cradling what was left of the ice cream and my rifle.
Saturday dawned dreary and dark, pretty much like John's mood and somewhere around two, I guiltily wished for Friday's silent compliance. The house wasn't big enough for me to disappear, so I did the next best thing, I turned on a chick flick type of movie and sat in the corner of the couch, hoping he'd be so disgusted he'd disappear into his bedroom.
Nope, best laid plans and all that because two minutes after the movie started, John laid on the couch, rested his head in my lap and fell asleep, trapping and forcing me to watch the rest of the horrific movie with the damn remote all the way across the room.
Sunday was brighter and John was more animated, sitting on the couch doing homework while I paced around the house, hovering. I thought both John and I were sorry I hadn't gone to work.
He managed his antibiotics but refused food until around one, at which time he began to haunt the postage stamp size kitchen. I'd done the patient thing. Played nice. He'd been sick. I'd been motherly but this was the tenth time John had opened and closed the kitchen cabinets.
"Whatever you're looking for isn't suddenly going to appear in the cabinet that you've checked ten times." I threw my body across the refrigerator, beating John by mere seconds. "Nope, not in the fridge either."
John did needy about as well as I did this whole nurse Nancy/mommy thing. He wanted something but I wasn't too sure exactly what. Hell, I wasn't too sure he knew either.
"How about a nap?" I tried.
His no echoed in the tiny kitchen.
Okay, bad me. I ran through a list of possible scenarios that would make him happy. His no's turned to grunts and eventually his grunts turned to seething glares. "Okay," I spat back in response to his silence, "why don't you kindly enlighten me as to what your heart desires."
"Grilled cheese with bacon and tomato on rye bread. Well done fries and a chocolate shake."
Wonderful, that wasn't exactly what I had been thinking. "I can make the—"
"George's." Arms crossed across his chest, he challenged me with a pout that would make a five year old proud. "I want George's."
I was thinking that after not eating for almost seventy-two hours, what he was requesting from the diner wasn't exactly a smart move, and ten to one the ensuing results were going to be disastrous, but even I wasn't that brave to tell him no. "That's doable."
"Remind George to throw in some extra ketchup packets." John yawned hugely, giving me a bird's eye view of his still red throat. "Pickles."
Nice, but I thought I was going to have to go in through the back door to get him to lie down. "I won't be long."
"Is that a hint for me to move my ass?"
"The shoe looks like it fits, Mom."
Rosalie hugged me, grilled me and ignored the fact that I was totally uncomfortable with her outpouring of emotions.
"Leave Sarah be, Rosalie."
"George." I gave the man a grateful smile and sidled over to him, keeping an eye on his wife.
"What did the doctor say?" George tapped his fingers on the counter, the two seconds it took me to answer was not fast enough for him.
"Strep throat." I kept the scarlet fever diagnosis to myself.
Rosalie's hand flew to her throat. "Oh the poor kid, I understand it's very painful."
"Tea, Tylenol and ice cream."
I smiled at their concern. "We got the tea covered. At this point, it's Motrin not Tylenol."
"And we have the ice cream." George winked at me.
"Well." I hated asking for things. "John really requested George's grilled cheese with—"
"Tomato and bacon. Well done fries." George practically clapped his hands in glee. "Rye bread."
"Yeah, that's it, exactly." I wasn't sure if I was comforted or upset how well they knew us. It was disconcerting and almost made my skin crawl. "Did John call ahead to warn you?" One could hope.
"Nope, I know my boy."
That didn't make me feel any better but there was no time to dwell on the corner I'd painted us into because Rosalie tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. "Someone wants your attention."
"Go say hello, there's time before John's order will be ready."
Always the gentlemen, Hal stood as I approached. "Sarah."
I ignored the man sitting at the table with him, dismissed him with barely a smile and turned my attention on Hal. "I didn't think you'd recognize me without my uniform." I waved him back to his seat, which he took reluctantly.
"How's John?" He totally paid no attention to my attempt at humor.
Using his fork, Hal pointed to the kitchen. "I deducing he sent you here for his grilled cheese, bacon and—"
Jeeze, what the hell was up with the fact that everyone had John pegged? "Yeah," I growled. "Errand mom, that's me." Though I don't think that stupid Mom's taxi bumper sticker was going to be showing up on my truck anytime in the near future.
Okay, the guy with Hal was staring. Staring always made me nervous. Unfamiliar people staring at me made me nervous enough to reach backwards just to make sure the gun was where it was supposed to be.
"Oh, I'm sorry, please excuse my rudeness. "Sarah Reese. Charley Dixon."
I nodded at Dixon's full-fledged smile.
"Sarah Reese." He stood and extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."
I flip flopped between reaching for my gun and shaking his hand.
Hal gave me the same type of look my father would grace me with at family gatherings when I hesitated about kissing long lost, haven't-seen-you-since-you-were-this-big- relatives.
I shook Dixon's hand. "Nice to meet you," I echoed. "Please sit." I said, looking over my shoulder, hoping that John's lunch was coming up. Soon.
"Charley here is an EMT."
"I haven't seen you around," I tried to remember how to make small talk.
"Ahh, okay." I nodded like that made sense to me.
"Three to eleven," Dixon said filling in the blanks. "So my days change. I'm off today."
"I told Charley that he had to come and have a George burger," Hal said, "though I did mention that my favorite waitress wasn't on today."
There were more than a few moments of awkward silence and just as I was about to say that I was going to check on my order, Dixon opened this mouth.
"Hal tells me that your boy was sick."
Hal was saved from my seething glare only because of what he'd done for John. "Yeah."
"What did the doctor say, Sarah?"
I sighed. I owed John's benefactor the truth. "Strep throat. Scarlet fever."
He blanched. "Oh, poor John."
Dixon patted Hal's arm. "Scarlet fever is strep throat with a rash. Honest," he added when it looked like Hal wouldn't be believing him any time in the near future.
"He's telling you the truth, Hal. That's exactly what the doctor said." I deemed it unnecessary to share the bad parent lecture I'd received.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. Grilled cheese with bacon and tomato on rye positive."
There was a quick ding of the counter bell. "Sarah—"
"There's my…" I waved back to the counter, "John's… I have to go."
"Tell John he owes me a chess game," Hal said.
"He knows and nice to meet you Mr. Dix—"
"Charley. You can call me Charley. Hope to see you again, Sarah."
The two bags that sat next to me in the truck definitely contained more than a grilled cheese sandwich, fries and extra ketchup packets. I had been too tired to argue with George and Rosalie, too exhausted to deal with people's caring, so I'd accepted the packages with what I had hoped would pass as a grateful smile and left without a backwards glance.
Truthfully? I was fucking starving and tried to think of the last time I'd eaten something that hadn't consisted of standing up and leaning over the kitchen counter.
There was grilled cheese. And fries. Lots of fries. A tuna sandwich. A burger. Onion rings. Cole slaw. Pickles. Salad. Two slices of cheese cake. Chocolate pudding with whipped cream. A huge chocolate chip cookie.
As appealing as everything was, John was protective of his sandwich and fries and pulled them over to his side of the table. He ate half with gusto, finished the fries then stared at me.
"What?" I looked up at from the fry I was dragging through the chocolate pudding.
"That's sorta disgusting."
"To each his own," I said innocently while licking my fingers.
John shuddered, dumped the rest of his fries into the Styrofoam container and slammed it shut.
"Okay?" Maybe my first thought was correct, that his food order wouldn't sit well.
"Fine." He reached across the table and snagged the plastic wrapped Frisbee sized cookie. "Just want to make sure I stake my claim before you…"
I dragged another fry through the pudding just to annoy the hell out of him.
John was satiated and medicated. Me? I was satiated, drowsy with good food and a strange sense of lazy peace. We napped. John at one end of the couch, me at the other. And it wasn't a stinking power nap either, it was a three-hour sleep. The afternoon disappeared in a haze of relaxation.
Slowly and with an unlikely growl of appreciation, I stretched out cramped muscles then jerked awake when stocking feet met empty couch. "John!" I shouted, throwing back the blanket. Blanket?
I stopped. Assessed. I had fallen asleep with John as the other bookend on the couch. Now? I'd been covered with a blanket and the other bookend was missing. "John!" I yelled again, springing into action, striding a handful of steps from the couch before he ran from his room and nearly bowled me over.
"Whoa." he skidded to a stop, blinked then stared at me, a slow acting smile producing a dimple. "You've got bed head."
Hurriedly, I smoothed down my hair, trying to hide the guilt of my afternoon delight. I studied John who stood, proudly basking in my shortcoming of taking a nap.
"And you." I pointed an accusatory finger at his face. "Have pillow creases." Ha. Caught him at his own game.
John ate the rest of his grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. It was cold, but he'd had much worse over his fourteen year life span. I had the cheesecake for dinner and enjoyed every damn bite of it.
"I need a note." He stuffed the empty Styrofoam into the garbage.
"Yeah. One of those been out sick, been to the doctor now all better notes."
John shrugged. "I guess the nurse."
"No problem," I said, grabbing a piece of scrap paper shoved into the basket.
Okay, it was bright yellow and a little worse for wear, but what the hell. There was a pen in the basket on the table and I clicked it one, twice, getting the ballpoint out on the third time.
"Ready. What should I say?" I gazed expectantly at John.
"You're the parent, shouldn't you know?"
Right. "I just wanted to make sure that there wasn't some type of protocol…"
He rolled his eyes and just walked away from me. Damn, there was that mom failure feeling in the pit of my stomach and I wasn't even sure what the hell I'd even done or hadn't done this time around.
Even after a three hour nap, John said goodnight and turned in early. I stared at the ceiling for most of the night, drifting off just before John's alarm clock rang.
Monday, John was recovered enough to go to school and even though I was exhausted I was looking forward to getting back into our routine. Life just felt safer that way.
I dropped him off with a barely tolerated kiss. A five-dollar bill for lunch, a bright yellow 'why he was out note' and a plastic baggie with his meds and two Motrin. "Just in case."
"And John's back to school today?" Rosalie asked as she filled the coffee urns.
"Yup. No fever. Felt much better, just needs a recheck in ten days, but for now, yeah, he's good."
"He'll be in later, right?"
"Yes, George," I answered with a wink. "John will be in later."
"Do me a favor, Rosalie, put in an insert in the menu that chicken soup is going to be on the menu for today. Nothing better than chicken soup to aid you on your road to recovery."
"John's in school today."
His smile broadened. "I'm glad."
"Me, too." I fidgeted, with my pencil. Asking for things didn't come easy. "Can I ask you a favor? I need you to take me someplace after you're done with breakfast."
Hal put down the cup of coffee he'd just picked up. "What did I tell you? Anything, remember?"
I walked to Lisa Beasley's grave with Hal by my side and laid down the bouquet of flowers I'd bought at the convenience store after I'd dropped John off at school. "Thank you." Funny, I hadn't been able to manage those words to Hal, but had no problem saying them to a woman I'd never met.
"I heard that George's putting chicken soup on the menu today." He guided me away from the grave with his hand on the small of my back. "It'll be good for, John. Chicken soup cures all that ails you."
"My mother used to make it every time I was sick."
He opened the door for me. "Maybe George will let you in the kitchen to make your mom's secret recipe."
"No, I think I'll let George do that for John."
And right there in the cemetery, under the watchful eye of Lisa Beasley, I got it. My orchestra.
And for the first time in what seemed like forever, if I listened really closely I could hear the echo of joy overshadowing my fear of Judgment day and for a little while, maybe I'd just sit back and listen.
Thank you jo for always going above and beyond beta duties. Internet, fandom and my life would be a lonelier place without you in my life.
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