Sometimes Goodbye is a Second Chance
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?
With our schedules unchanged, days slipped away almost unnoticed, but on a morning like this, after three days of solid torrential rain and dealing with the aftermath of the havoc the weather had caused on the roads, I missed Michelle and conversation.
I stretched out on the couch watching but not absorbing the morning news when the doorbell rang. "Damn it," I grumbled to the perky newscaster as I hauled myself upright. The bell rang one more time before I even made to the front door, pissing me off. I pulled open the door, ready to give whoever had chosen to disturb me a piece of my mind.
We'd danced this dance before, different scenario, same cast of characters and I opened the door a little wider. "Come on in."
John pulled back the hood of his sweatshirt, ran his fingers through his hair and stared at the puddle already forming around his feet. "I'm a little..."
"Wet?" I finished the sentence for him.
"It's okay." Water dried just like containers of vanilla yogurt could be purchased. "You're going to get sick standing out there in wet clothes."
"Yes, Mom." Gingerly, he stepped over the threshold onto the mat by the side of the door.
John wasn't just wet, he was soaked, head to toe, even his backpack hanging off his shoulder was creating its own river. He sneezed and my life flashed before my eyes. He rubbed his nose with the heel of his hand, then dropped it with a self-conscience smile when he caught me gawking at him.
"I'm fine," he sniffed.
"Drop the backpack."
"Never mind." I closed the door, locked it then turned my attention back to John. "Stay there. I don't want you to move."
He sneezed in response.
Great. "Hold that thought."
I put two huge bath towels on the vanity and started the shower, old house with an uncooperative hot water heater required running the water to get it past lukewarm. I dug up an old, long sleeved tee shirt, a pair of socks, and sweatpants that should keep him warm enough while I stuck his clothes in the dryer.
John was still standing in the exact spot, distractedly rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, his tapping sneaker sending out a shower of droplets.
"Shower's running. There's towels and clothes on the..."
Slowly, John dropped his hand and stared at me.
"Hey, buddy, you okay?"
"Yeah..." He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
Of course I took it, dried it off on my pants. "Another fun-filled day at the Dixon household, Johnny?"
John sneezed twice in quick succession.
"Yeah, that's what I thought." I pointed in the direction of the bathroom. "Go."
He shuffled into the living room, then dropped heavily into the loveseat across from the couch where I was sitting and I truly tried to stifle my laughter at his old man groan of appreciation as he stretched his legs out onto the coffee table.
John glared at me and my humor disappeared into throat clearing "Better?" Michelle would be pissed, but I turned a blind eye to the feet/table thing.
There was some toe wiggling and plucking at the too large sweats. John might believe he could glare like an adult, and while he was tall, he was missing the breadth and width that would come with maturity. "Much better." He patted the shirt he was wearing. "You saved this?"
I hadn't meant to save it. Truly, I hadn't and if you'd asked me yesterday, I would've denied any knowledge of owning a ratty Nebraska Cornhuskers tee shirt. It had been, as of early this morning, buried in the second drawer of my dresser, but memories are funny things, because that shirt was the first thing I had reached for.
"Yeah, I saved it."
"I looked for it, you know?"
"Huh?" All that came to mind was John looking for the shirt when he'd broken into my house.
Head down, he picked at a stain on the left sleeve. "When my mother told me we were leaving." His head shot up and he begged for forgiveness. "I, umm, looked for the shirt."
"It was in the laundry."
"You kept it."
"Once upon a time it was my shirt." Many moons ago, until John had absconded with the tee, appearing with it one day when we were working on my car, using the excuse that I'd never worn it and his mother would kill him if he ruined another of his shirts with a grease stain. And he had been right, I hadn't ever worn it.
John sneezed again, sniffed, then slunk even further down in the couch. "I'm glad I never found the shirt that morning, because..." He just trailed off, not finishing.
I gave him a few minutes to gather his thoughts, but he didn't gather, he just began to worry a loose string on the hem of the tee.
"Because why, Johnny?"
"We didn't get to pack a bag or eat a pancake breakfast before jumping forward." He fingered the shirt as lovingly as he had caressed the Harley. "And it would've been lost."
"I guess we should be grateful that laundry was never a number one priority in Nebraska."
I make a mean oatmeal and I never failed to stun Sarah at my ability to get John to eat something that fell within the realm of healthy, but not today. Today, he was doing a great job picking out and eating only the raisins, ignoring the oatmeal, nuts and granola. "Want pancakes instead?"
My attempted humor fell flat as another raisin bit the dust.
"You called in for me, didn't you?"
John had inherited Sarah's avoidance gene and experience had just taught me it was easier to go with the flow. "I called in. I put your clothes in the dryer. I made you breakfast."
"Thanks," he grumbled. "Where's my backpack?"
"Drying out in the living room."
He pushed back the chair, stood and I clasped his hand before he stepped two inches from the table. "Why are you here, Johnny?
"Let go of me," he ordered in a tone of voice that made mention of the fact that John was unused to anyone laying a hand on him unless they were his mother or made of metal.
"No." I wasn't Sarah, blinded by the mission I had to carry out. "Sit," I repeated, kicking the chair out with my foot.
He didn't sit. He may have bared his teeth and flared his nostrils, but he didn't move.
Neither did I. John's temper tantrums had never scared me.
"Please, let go."
What the hell was I doing? This wasn't my son, nor my step-son, and honestly, I wasn't too sure how the two of us fit into each other's lives. I let him go. "I'm sorry, Johnny, I had no right—"
"I shouldn't have come here today." He quickly corrected himself. "Ever. I shouldn't have come here, ever." John raised his right hand, opening and closing it a few times as if searching for a word. Phrase. Anything. But he failed, miserably, gave up with a shrug and practically fell into the seat. "Do you have any brown sugar for the oatmeal?"
"It's not sweet enough for you?" It would seem two could play the avoidance game.
John was sitting on the couch, once again his feet were quite comfortable on the coffee table and once again I made no comment as I sat on the other end of the couch, the remote at the ready.
A pile of opened school books took up the space separating me from John, his laptop balanced on his thighs and he was gnawing on a pencil, concentrating intently.
"Want to watch anything in particular?" I tapped a book with the remote.
He didn't even look up, and his speech was garbled by the pencil. "No."
"Need help?" I flipped through a book, hoping he wouldn't say yes. Global History wasn't one of my strongest points.
"Umm... No, thanks." An expression of amusement lifted the corner of his lips. "I'm good."
Like the tee shirt in the drawer, I was blindsided by a flash of memory. Sarah had never offered to help John with homework and he had never learned to accept my assistance when I tried to take up the slack. Her lack of interest had always confused me, and I came to the conclusion that her disinterest had been a façade, and was actually a mother's lesson of self-sufficiency. But it had never been that. Homework had never played a part in Sarah's future for John, so it wasn't important.
Rather than talk and say things I had no right to say, I began to channel surf. Stopping at one of those accident-waiting-to-happen talk shows, I wondered how my life, as it stood right at this moment, would fare against the people who were in the center ring for today's show.
John picked up his head, his attention drawn to the adults on the screen exchanging angry, heated words.
"Amazing," I said, believing that I had found a kinship in hating this stupidity, "people believe this crap?"
John pointed to the TV with the gnarled pencil and said, without an ounce of condemnation in a voice that was one hundred years more mature than mine, "that's why my mom never told you, Charley, because without proof, it's just crap."
I opened my mouth, inserted my foot but by the time I removed it, John had once again lost himself in homework and daytime TV had lost any of its appeal. Switching off the TV, I reached for the newspaper, the front section was still damp, but part two, the section with the crossword puzzle, was dry.
I first noticed it out of the corner of my eye. The head rolling to the side. The eyes drifting shut. The fingers hovering over the keyboard had already lost their train of thought.
"Johnny?" I whispered his name only after his eyes had closed for longer than thirty seconds.
He coughed in his semi-sleep. "Hmmm?"
That might have been an answer but his eyes didn't open one iota. I gave him five more minutes and hoped, as I got up to move his laptop and books onto the coffee table, that he was a heavier sleeper than his mother used to be.
The rain and John's congested rhythmic snoring gave the impression of solitude and safety, both of which I knew to be false. Very scary robots have a tendency to change one's perspective very quickly.
Too many hours spent awake during the witching hours and I began to drift. Bleary eyed, I focused on my watch. Ten thirty. Good. For today, there was enough time to pretend all was right with the world for another hour or two.
Shit. Crap. Fuck. Damn. I shot to my feet. Three thirty. "Johnny?" Yelling his name,
I stumbled around the house and found him gone. Still raining outside and he was gone, as in walking back to school gone. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. What the hell did he think he had to prove? And to who?
Backpack. Hoodie. Sneakers. Laptop. Books. Gone, as if he'd never been here at all and part of me, as I did my third go through of the house, began to believe this visit had been a figment of my very overactive, sleep-deprived imagination, until I saw it. The Cornhuskers tee shirt, folded neatly on the kitchen table with a hastily scribbled note on a piece of loose leaf paper in John's atrocious handwriting sitting right next to it -please keep it safe. I'll be back.
I didn't see John for a few days, and in hindsight, considering how he'd left and how he'd sounded that day, I worried. Worried enough that I almost called him a number of times, thumb paused above the dial button, but what was I going to say - "Johnny can you come over and play?" Yeah, I didn't think so.
So I did the next best thing, I began to obsessively follow the news and the papers for anything remotely suspicious or ridiculous. Bloodshed, robots, something very Connor-like. Hell, I'd even begun to read the Star and National Enquirer at the grocery store checkout.
Michelle had commented about my sudden interest in current events. Though finding the newest issue of the Star and the Enquirer while unpacking the groceries awarded me a head shake, a raised eyebrow and the feeling that my wife believed I was a sandwich short of a picnic.
I was tired. Exhausted. Back to back overtime shifts could do that to a person, which was probably why I wasn't thinking straight, because there would no other reason why I was sitting outside the Connor's house, parked far enough away to observe but, hopefully, not be seen. Worry had turned me into a stalker.
Halfway through my cup of coffee, the very scary robot and Sarah drove away, leaving the uncle from the future and John.
And I waited some more.
Until finally my coffee cup was empty and I had one of two choices. Shit or get off the pot. This wasn't my life. Sarah and John, they weren't family. I shoved my empty cup into the holder on the console. I had a wife who loved me. Friends. A good job. Beautiful house. I had all of those things, but still I hesitated taking that final step of just driving away from the damn house.
The knock on the driver's side window scared the shit out of me and all I could think of was that a) thankfully I had finished my cup of hot coffee and b) the window was closed so hopefully my girly screech of surprise stayed within the car.
Derek. Future man and his gun of choice were pressed against the window.
I forced some semblance of a grin.
'Roll down the window', he mouthed.
I counted until three before following orders. "Yeah?" Whoever it was who said a good offense is the best defense had never had the pleasure of having only air between themselves and a gun, nor the brain of a resistant fighter from the future with his finger on the trigger.
"Sarah call you?"
Damned if I do. Damned if I don't. "Came to see how you were doing," I lied, and based on Derek's snort, it wasn't one of my better performances.
"I'm doing good. You?"
I pointed to the weapon. "I've been better."
"Old habits. Few friends." He shoved the gun in the waistband of his pants. "You know how it is."
Can't say that I do but I smiled all the same.
"It's okay to admit that Sarah called you. I mean, even though John's been to the doctor..."
Derek's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
I cleared my throat. "Yeah, doctor. Sarah mentioned..." I left it hanging.
"Poor kid's been sick. Really sick."
"Really sick," I parroted. "Sarah mentioned doctor. Said if I were in the neighbor—"
Derek opened the car door. "Since you're in the neighborhood."
The medications were lined up on the kitchen counter and I walked over to examine them. I picked up the one closest to me and instantaneously, Derek was by my side, plucking the bottle out of fingers. "John had a hard time with the medication. Took a few different ones before the doc could find one that didn't make him sick to his stomach. Or break out in a rash." He grimaced. "It wasn't pretty."
"And now?" I was fishing for some answers.
"Sleeping. First time in... a few days."
Okay, that wasn't exactly what I was looking for and I took a step towards a hallway, which I hoped would lead me to wherever John was.
"Not on your life," Derek threatened. "Sarah said and I quote, 'on threat of death if John woke up not of his own accord, there'll be bloodshed'. Followed by, she has a terminator and she's not afraid to use her."
"Even I'm not that crazy."
"I hear ya, man. Can I at least take a peek? I'll be quiet," I whispered.
Derek shrugged. "It's your funeral. Through the living room, second door on the left."
Not too sure why Derek gave me directions when he dogged my footsteps down the hallway, pushed open the door and stepped into the room with me.
Oh. This was his room? It looked transient, hotel like, appearing colder than it probably was. Blinds drawn against the day, the room was bathed in semi darkness with only a cheap lamp on the dresser shedding any type of light. Utilitarian, that was the word. Prison. Very different from when John lived under my roof.
John was sleeping, reclining on a nest of pillows. The kid looked like crap. In a sweatshirt that had seen better days, red lips, chapped nose along the high spots of fever contributing to an unnatural blush to his cheeks. I heard the rasp of his breathing, heavy and phlegm-filled. The purple shadows under his eyes attested to every single sleepless night Derek had talked about. Add to that a horrific case of bed head and John would be a walking, talking poster child as to why people needed their flu shots.
"Damn." I took one step forward, the professional in me overriding my fear of Derek's warning.
"Don't," Derek hissed, grabbing my arm. "Do. No. Disturb. Look, but don't touch."
Angrily, I tugged my arm from his grasp. "He looks..."
"Better. Believe me, John looks better."
So, here I was, back in the Connor kitchen, feeling awkward, embarrassed and totally inadequate because I'd done what? What had this accomplished? I came. I saw. And I was leaving. "Derek." I turned to face him, hoping that the fact I saved his life would count as something. "I should've come by sooner." Lies rolled off my tongue easier than I ever believed possible. I glanced toward the medication on the counter then allowed my gaze to slip in the direction of John's bedroom, hoping I conveyed to Derek that my inability to be the cavalry and come to John's rescue was a failure I wanted to keep buried from Sarah.
Derek rubbed his knuckles across his chin, contemplating my unspoken request, then stuck out his hand.
Stunned at his show of friendship, I hesitated a moment before reciprocating, extending my own hand slowly. "Thank you," I said gratefully, possibly the first truth I'd spoken since entering Sarah's home.
"Sarah doesn't need to know you stopped by." Just before opening the door, with his hand resting on the doorknob, Derek stretched his lips over his teeth in what I believed was a smile. "Don't take this the wrong way, but it's really safer for all concerned if you just went on with your life and didn't look back."
Physically, I didn't make a return appearance at the Connors but I worried. A lot. Probably more than I had any right to. Until a few days later on a Monday after a weekend where I ended up working, John showed up. Great. I was tired, short-tempered and in a horrifically bad mood. "Nice of you to drop by." I swear I snarled at him as I held the door open.
"Crabby much?" His voice was raspy, almost prepubescent and he walked right past me, swinging a brown paper bag under my nose. "Did you have breakfast yet?" Coughing, he took a moment, then cleared his throat before dropping his backpack where he stood.
I was punch drunk with exhaustion and really not in the mood to play games. "What do you want?"
"I brought you breakfast." John backtracked, shoving the bag into my midsection, leaving me no option but to grab it.
Oh god, it smelled delicious. "Johnny?" I followed the sound of his coughing into the kitchen, where he stood, fridge opened, looking for something. "The orange juice is on..." I leaned over him, moved the milk and tapped the shelf. "Right there."
"Thanks." He took the container out, shook it, then reached for a glass in the cabinet.
I gave him the thumbs up. "Smart boy. You learn fast."
He used the edge of the glass to rub his chest. "Don't want to spread any germs drinking out of the carton."
I dropped into one of the kitchen chairs and prepared to play dumb. "You sound a little rough around the edges."
He poured himself a glass of juice and drank half before answering my question. "Bronchitis." John's eyes widened and he tried not to laugh. "Really, really bad bronchitis. X-rays, meds and doctors' visits bronchitis." John gazed at me over the rim of the glass. "Drove my mother crazy bronchitis. Shoulda picked me up from school when it rained," John mimicked. "Guilt." He topped off the glass with more orange juice and shook his head.
"I definitely understand where she's coming from."
John's brow knit together in obvious confusion.
I slid a slice of bacon out of the sandwich and broke it in half. "Last time I saw you," conscious I wanted to add, "you left without saying goodbye. In the pouring rain, so yeah, I can understand your mom's guilt."
"You were sleeping." Ah, there it was, that tinge of righteous indignation inherent to all teenagers.
"Attitude, Johnny." I opened the top of the roll, replaced the bacon then took a bite.
"You were sleeping. I didn't want to wake you." His glare was cut short by a coughing spell that had me physically wrapping his hand around his glass of juice.
It took a few minutes before he had his breath and he wiped streaming eyes and his nose on the sleeve of his hoodie. "You were sleeping," he croaked. "Snoring."
"It was raining," I repeated. "And if I remember, you weren't feeling that great."
"I'm okay," he replied indignantly.
"Sure you are. Now." With clarity, I recalled the collection of medications lining the kitchen counters, but kept my mouth shut and stuck out my hand. "Where's your cell? Don't I have to call the school?"
"Today was my first day back." John sought the meaning of life in the remainder of his juice.
"But you're not in school."
"I have a doctor's note for when I return, no specific date. Just a 'whenever I'm well enough to go to back'."
I pointed to his backpack. "You mom thought you were well enough?" It was my turn to glare at him. "Your very scary robot isn't waiting outside, is she?"
"No." He buried a cough and a runny nose in his shoulder. "The three of them are out."
"Out?" I should know by now that curiosity did a number on the cat and to just accept things at face value with the Connor's. Too much information was never a good thing.
"Have you worked on the Harley?" With the deftness and maneuverability of a race car driver, John switched gears and steered me away from the direction I was heading.
Thankfully, John was wearing the Cornhusker's tee and not the one he'd come in, because the front was now sporting a large streak of grease right through the emblem.
"Nice look," I commented with a chuckle, using the wrench to tap the front of John's shirt.
John looked down. "It adds character." He yawned, ducking his head.
"Need a nap?" I'd lost count at the number of times John had yawned or rubbed his eyes.
For a second he hesitated and I held my breath, wondering if John was going to answer in the affirmative. "I'm too old for a nap."
I pushed myself off the floor, stood and stretched, vertebrae cracking impressively. "I'm too old to be sitting on a cold cement floor."
"Get back to me when you're my age and we'll talk about who's a wuss."
Dead silence. Damn. Damn. I was definitely perfecting the 'open mouth, insert foot' pose but when I glanced at John, he was smiling. One of those rare smiles, that made you realize every other time the kid smiled, it was a façade of an emotion. This was dimple producing, eye reaching and made him look even younger than fifteen. "John?" I spoke his name tentatively, as if I were afraid to break the moment.
"Did you just call the future leader of mankind a wuss?"
"No," I spoke without hesitation. "I called John Reese a future wuss." I glanced quickly around the room. "I don't see any future leader of mankind."
The smile stayed, firm and strong, but his eyes filled with tears. Hurriedly, he swiped them away with the back of his hand. He sniffed, coughed and I turned my back under the pretense of putting away some tools, giving him a moment to collect himself.
"Left-over pizza or Chinese?" I asked, sticking my head into the fridge. I popped it out when I realized he wasn't answering.
John was staring into space, thinking. I knew that expression, neither food choice was appealing to him.
"Johnny, give me a hint."
There was an involuntary reaction when John jerked to awareness, his right hand sought his temple and he rubbed gently, dropping his hand when he realized he'd captured my undivided attention. "Either one is fine," he lied.
Idiot. Between Sarah, Derek, me and, hell, maybe even the robot, did John have someone who would be able to pass as a functioning parent? Not so caught up in our own agenda. "Headache?"
"Fine." He coughed after the single word then rolled his eyes, angry at his body's betrayal.
I searched the cabinets, found what I was looking for. I plunked down two Tylenol and a large glass of water on the table in front of him. "These should help your non-headache."
"Yeah, I know, you're fine."
John cupped his hand over the pills and pulled them towards him. "No, I was going to say thank you."
We ended up with the Chinese food. I ate. He picked.
"I'll make something else."
"You got it," I said, wishing that John wouldn't always do what he thought the people in his life wanted him to do.
He ate the cereal. I picked at the Chinese. "How's school?"
"You always did."
"Science is pretty cool." He blushed slightly and before I could call him on that, John was immersed in reading the back of the cereal box. "Mom never buys the good stuff. She buys like Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes."
"Yeah, nothing better than a good bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Breakfast of champions."
John helped himself to another bowlful. "Not according to Sarah Connor. Pancakes or Corn Flakes are the extent of her repertoire..." John stopped, caught his words and ducked his head.
I laughed. I truly didn't mean to, considering I was treading on dangerous ground. "Cut yourself some slack, you're a teenager, John. You're allowed to speak ill of your mother. It's a right of passage. It's normal."
John snorted. "Usually normal is so not a word I'd use to describe me." He paused, chasing the last of the cereal around the bowl. "Or my mother."
And what did I say to that? Nothing. Because he's probably right. Connor is not synonymous with normalcy. Poor kid. Probably stronger than anyone gave him credit for. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I know I wouldn't be getting out of bed in the morning. Truth be told, there were mornings when, if I really thought about the knowledge Sarah had imparted on me, I just wanted to pull the covers over my head. "Why do you come here, Johnny?"
He lifted his head, chin forward and studied me from under his fringe of bangs. "Why do you open your door for me, Charley?"
Never ask a question you don't want to know the answer to, my grandma always used to say. "Because I want to know how the story ends."
"I'm not some messiah."
I offered a noncommittal shrug. "I'm not talking about... what do you call it? Judgment Day?"
He nodded. "Yeah, April—"
"Eh," I threw up a hand. "Too much information."
I took a moment and gathered my thoughts. "I'm not talking Judgment Day. I'm talking about you. You were a snot-nosed kid when I first met you. No way did you want to let anyone in and share your mother."
He flung himself backwards in the chair, arms crossed. "I did not."
"Yeah, ya did. Think about it. You know you did. It had been you and your mother for so long—"
"There were others," John blurted out. "Men. To garner knowledge to teach me what she couldn't."
"For a long time, it had been just you and your mother," I continued, avoiding, trying not to listen to the roadblocks he was throwing up along the way. "You didn't welcome me with open arms."
"I did," he huffed.
"Eventually," John acquiesced. "I did."
"I know you did. Eight years is a long time. For me..." I paused, time traveling skewing my thought process. "It was eight years. You didn't come back in your twenties. You came back as if you'd never left. I get to see—"
"You might be disappointed. Rumor has it future-me isn't such a great guy."
"You've already changed history. I mean, the future. Right? By jumping forward you've already changed—"
"I don't know. No one knows." He leaned forward in the chair, then backwards, squirming, shifting nervously until finally he exploded. "I need to leave. This is ridiculous." His whole body was in motion. He was going to run and I was never going to catch him.
John was fast and dangerous, I'd been on the receiving end of his training, but this time I was prepared and I stopped him with words. "Don't leave, Johnny."
He hesitated for a moment, then bent down to get his backpack.
"Please," I begged. "Stay."
"I wish I didn't know about Judgment Day." John was facing the door, not me.
"I know." I took one step closer.
"No, you don't. No one does."
"Doesn't understand." The backpack was dropped to the floor with a thud, but John was still carrying on the conversation with the door. "She had eighteen years of a normal life. I've had six months at your house and this." he stuttered, hiccupping past emotions that could be heard, but not seen. "These days of pretending that this is my house and you're..."
How the hell did we wind up like this?
"It's over," he said with a finality that was too old for him. "It's time to be a man and put away all childish things."
"Bullshit." Sarah's words. Derek's words. Whoever the hell's words they were, they certainly weren't John's. "Face me, John. Be John Connor. Future John or whoever you're supposed to be and look me in the eye and tell me you're done coming here. Working on the Harley. Having lunch. Doing homework. Being normal." I took a breath. "Look at me!" I yelled.
Silence, and I held my breath.
"Maybe between the two of us we can change this future you." I stopped, paused, maybe giving him some type of hope for the years to come. Different hope than what Sarah offered and a different future than what Derek and the robot were showing him. "And besides..." Realization hit me with a chuckle. "You're still wearing the tee shirt."
"Oh?" He looked down. "Yeah, guess I need to fix that."
John had changed his shirt and settled on the couch, toeing off his sneakers before stretching out.
I checked my watch and tried not to yawn, my second wind slowly winding down. "How about a DVD?"
One thing I loved and Sarah hated were movies. Actually, in hindsight, Sarah never had the ability to just sit and relax. She never understood when John and I would make a big bowl of popcorn, veg out and be entertained. Fixing cars, she got. Building things, she understood. But movies. Nope. Nada. Actually, if I were being totally honest, John's was a learned enjoyment, compliments of yours truly. Admittedly, experience, Sarah's reprimands, and nightmares were excellent teachers, narrowing down our movie selections. Now I knew why science fiction was iffy, but comedies were always a safe bet.
John checked his own watch, calculating. He coughed, cleared his throat, then coughed again, holding up his hand when I leaned towards him. "Okay," he squeaked.
Bullshit. And for the first time I really looked at the pale face, shadowed eyes and how he'd become one with the sofa. The kid shouldn't be here. Shouldn't be in school. He should be home in bed with a hovering mother. Quickly, I rummaged through the cabinet where we stored our DVD's and chose three. "I'll be right back," I said, tossing him all the movies in quick succession. "Choose one."
The three movies were lined up on the table next to Johnny's left foot. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No. I'm not." I wasn't too sure if it was the steaming cup of tea with lemon and honey I was offering him, or my movie choice he was objecting to.
"Thanks," he said holding, out his hands for the tea. Blowing away the steam, he took a tentative sip then smiled slowly. "Hot. Good. Thanks," he said again.
Alright, it wasn't the tea, it was the movies. "You have a problem with my selection?"
"Ummm... They're..." John poked the first one with his sock-covered foot.
"Excellent. Believe me." I leaned over his legs and picked my favorite of the bunch.
"I'm too old for Disney."
"Therein lies your problem, Johnny, you're never too old for Disney."
Incrementally, against his better judgment, John relaxed enough to enjoy the movie. I snuck off into the kitchen, stuck a bag of popcorn in the microwave then stood in the doorway watching him watching Cars, the mug still in his hands, the barest hint of a smile on his face.
Good for him.
Damn Sarah for not allowing him to feel safe enough to be a kid.
John laughed and I smiled. Good for me for giving him, if only for a few hours, what Sarah couldn't.
John sat in the passenger seat, eyes closed. Crap, I was pretty sure he was sleeping and I hated to be the bad guy and wake him, but the dashboard clock made sure to let me know we were playing with fire. "Hey." I shook his left arm. Stopped. Waited. Then tried again. "Rise and shine."
He groaned, but his eyelids fluttered and he stretched, slowly, tentatively, unfolding his body, straining against the seat belt.
I got the one eyed stare.
"Do not tell me I fell asleep in the car," John whined.
"Not going to tell you a thing."
A series of deep coughs got buried in the crook of his arm.
"You know, John, maybe you need to tell your mom that you should be staying home tomorrow."
He cleared his throat, but his 'no' was still high pitched and raspy. "I'll be fine. Some meds, some Tylenol, the inhaler..."
"Was any of that supposed to be taken during the day?"
"You needed it."
John shook his head and smirked at me. "Didn't we have this mom discussion before?"
"Hey." I was smiling, even though I was trying not to. "Okay," I admitted begrudgingly, "we did."
"I have to go," he said suddenly, fumbling with the seat belt. "It's getting late, and I don't want—"
"Are you sure she's coming to pick you up?"
"Death. Taxes. Sarah Connor showing up at school when she says she will, yeah, it's just one of those things."
Sometimes the kid sounded just like an old man. "Do you want me to wait here just in case..."
"Charley." John sighed deeply. "No. Don't do this, okay? Don't become my mother. One of her is hard enough."
"Don't you dare," he warned, eyes narrowed, jaw set. "I need you," he admitted, turning away so I wouldn't be able to see the raw truth. "I don't need another person," he snorted, "or terminator, to worry about a me I've yet to be. I just want to be normal."
"We can do normal," I lied.
"I know." John put one hand on the door handle, then turned back and faced me. "Thanks."
"Go home and take your meds and make sure your mother lets you stay home tomorrow. Got that?"
He shook his head.
"Hey, I'm doing normal. This is normal. Worrying, that's normal. That's what you wanted, normal?"
He rolled his eyes, once again I was obviously going overboard. "You don't have to prove anything; I'll be back."
I reached over and ruffled his hair before he had the chance to duck. He practically fell out of the passenger door in his haste to get away, beet red, but there was no hiding the slightest tugging at the corner of his lips.
Pride infused me for giving to John what Sarah wasn't able to. Normalcy to John was a powerfully addictive drug. More appealing than freedom. My ability to allow him to experience what went on behind other's closed doors was and would be the reason he'd come back to me. Again. And again.
I was evilly selfish. I would be the first to admit it. It had taken me eight years to come to terms with the loss of Sarah and John from my life and mere weeks to undo.
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 ribcages.
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.
My muse for this fic was inspired by this deleted scene from Sarah Connor Chronicles.
I loved this. Wished TPTB had left it in instead of gracing the cutting room floor with it.
So... the muse poked and prodded me and Sometimes Goodbye is a Second Chance was the outcome. Yes, it was longer than I intended and the fic ended up encompassing not only Season 1 but also Samson and Delilah from Season 2.
The title to the fic was borrowed from an amazing song entitled Second Chance by the group Shinedown. Definitely, worth a listen.
Many thanks to Tammy, Annie and babs for the encouragement and to dramady for the beta, the fic is better for your input.
Sometimes Goodbye is my birthday present to jo. My beta, my friend, the person who manages to keep my words straight, my ideas straighter because without her my life would indeed be an empty place. So, to the sister of my heart, for all you have done for me, for all you have taught me and will continue to teach me, this one's for you.
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