Synopsis: This story is set some years in the future, when Johnny has been promoted to captain.
Genre: Action / Drama
Word Count: 10,800
It had been a quiet day, which was all to the good after the hectic shift from the day before. Fire Captain/Paramedic John Gage had spent the day alone, doing the chores that needed done since both he and his wife had been out of the house for over 24 hours.
It still sometimes seemed wondrous to Johnny that Rebecca and he had been married for 10 years now. He had never thought someone as fiercely intelligent and independent as Rebecca would fall in love with a lowly paramedic but she had and they had been married after a whirlwind courtship. Rebecca was an investigative journalist and travelled a lot. She was very understanding and supportive of his desire to remain a paramedic and they had celebrated together when the laws had finally been changed and paramedics could advance in the fire service and remain paramedics.
The only down side of their relationship had been the fact they had had no children. Johnny had secretly gone to Dr Brackett and been checked out when Rebecca hadn’t conceived within a year of trying and after a further year, she had admitted that she, too, had been checked out and there appeared to be no reason why they couldn’t have children. Johnny was disappointed, for he had wanted children for years, but they agreed that they couldn’t afford endless, costly, heart-breaking medical intervention and Rebecca didn’t want to adopt. It seemed to Johnny churlish to insist on adoption when Rebecca would undoubtedly be doing most of the work and he buried his disappointment and made up his mind to be grateful for what he had.
He had finished tidying the garden that day and noticed that the eaves of the house would need painting again soon. He chatted to his nosy neighbor over the fence for a while before going back inside to sit in front of the TV. He liked his home, but he would have preferred to live further out and maybe have some land so he could keep a horse, but Rebecca was an urban girl and didn’t want to live in even a semi-rural area.
The phone rang about 9pm. “Hello?” Johnny answered with a smile, sure it was Rebecca calling.
“Captain Gage? You don’t know me, but I know your wife. I’m really sorry to tell you your wife is having an affair. I’d hope that someone would tell me if it was my wife and I know you’re a good man and I think what she is doing is despicable.”
“Who are you?” Johnny demanded.
“You won’t think so, but I’m kind of a friend. I hate what your wife is doing and someone like you doesn’t deserve this. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but it is true.” The man on the other end paused fractionally. “When you were at the Paramedic Convention in Sacramento, your wife even had her lover stay over in your house.”
“If I were you, I’d hang up now,” Johnny advised, furious. “I’m going to be calling the police.” He hung up.
His hands were shaking, he noticed with an odd detachment. He wasn’t going to phone the police. What could they do, after all? It was just a malicious phone call. His hands were still shaking. He didn’t believe it. Rebecca loved him and he loved her and they were happy together. What kind of a sick, twisted person would phone someone else and say that kind of thing?
His hands were still shaking. He poured out a tiny measure – almost a whole thimbleful, he guessed – of the Scotch Rebecca liked to drink. He really didn’t care for it, but knew he needed something. He downed it in a single gulp and grimaced as it burned all the way down to his stomach. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of Rebecca’s hotel.
He wasn’t expecting an answer, as he knew she was covering an event that evening. He left a voice message on her room phone. “Hey, babe. Hope your work is going well and it isn’t too boring for you. You’ll never guess what happened to me this evening. I had an anonymous phone call, telling me you’re cheating on me. Can you believe it? No, me neither! I have no idea who that joker was, but if I ever find out, he’ll be sorry. What a horrible thing to do. Anyway, sweetheart, I am off to bed and I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Love you.” He blew a couple of kisses and hung up.
While he didn’t for a single minute believe the anonymous call, it left him feeling completely unsettled. He couldn’t read, the TV couldn’t hold his interest and he paced up and down, hoping against hope that the phone would ring and it would be Rebecca and they would laugh together and comment on how nasty some people were.
The phone rang.
He practically jumped on it. “John Gage.”
“This is Chief Stanley,” said a familiar voice. “How are you, John?”
“Fine, Chief,” Johnny replied automatically. “What can I do for you?”
“Captain Johnston of station 23 just got trapped under a collapsing wall. While he isn’t badly hurt, he is getting a bed for the night at Rampart. Can you cover the rest of the shift?”
“Sure, Chief,” Johnny agreed. It might be the best thing. He would hopefully be busy and able to forget about that phone call. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
“Thanks, John,” his former captain said warmly. “I knew I could count on you.”
Grabbing the gear he always had ready, Johnny headed out of the house. He hadn’t been gone more than 10 minutes when the phone started ringing.
It was almost 10 the next morning before he got back from his overtime. He showered and dressed and went to hunt for some breakfast. The light on the answering machine was blinking and he pressed it.
“John, it’s me,” said a familiar voice. Rebecca! He started to smile. “I’m so sorry you had to find out that way,” she went on. “Things haven’t been good between us for a while, have they? Oh, I know we pretended that everything was just fine, but it hasn’t been. I don’t know who phoned you, but I’m sorry they did. Bye.”
He just stood there, totally stunned. He couldn’t believe it. He reached for the replay button and listened again, hoping against hope that somehow the message had changed. It hadn’t. Johnny stood there, looking at the phone and suddenly he was crying, sobbing violently, feeling as though the world had just stopped turning. In a single blink of an eye, everything had changed.
Instinctively, he reached out to the one person he knew would be there for him. He didn’t stop to wonder if Roy would be on shift; he just had to speak to him. The phone rang for only a moment before Roy answered. “Hello?”
“Roy.” Johnny had no idea what to say.
“What’s wrong?” Roy asked. “Is it Rebecca?”
“Not in the way you mean,” Johnny croaked. “Roy, last night I got a phone call from a man claiming Rebecca was having an affair.”
“Oh, Johnny!” Roy exclaimed in deep sympathy.
“I didn’t believe it,” Johnny went on, barely hearing. “I called and left a message, then was called in to cover. When I got home just now I found a message from her. Oh, Roy.” His voice broke and he choked on a sob. Roy knew what he was going to say, but hoped he was wrong and let Johnny say it. “Roy, she is cheating on me.” He started sobbing again. He felt as though his heart had been pulled from his chest.
“I’ll be right over,” Roy said firmly.
“You don’t have to,” Johnny protested automatically. He desperately wanted someone to be there with him, someone who could listen to the message and tell him it said something different, but he didn’t want to ask Roy to come.
“I’m coming,” Roy told him firmly and hung up. He grabbed his jacket and keys and scribbled a note for Joanne.
He made it to Johnny’s in record time.
It didn’t matter how many years had gone past; Roy still thought of Johnny as his partner. He had been delighted, if astonished, when Johnny had fallen so heavily for Rebecca and they had married. He had found Rebecca a little difficult to take initially, but they soon got over their wariness of this other person who was so close to Johnny and became friends. As a foursome, he, Joanne, Johnny and Rebecca often socialized together. He had been as devastated as Johnny when he found out that they couldn’t have children, for he knew that Johnny would make a great dad.
Now, he found a broken man. Johnny had sunk into a chair by the phone and was staring fixedly at the message light on the answering machine. His eyes were red and swollen and he was shivering. He glanced up when Roy came in and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He was no longer alone in this nightmare. “Roy…”
“Easy, junior,” Roy soothed and put his arms around the younger man. Johnny reciprocated at once, flinging his arms around Roy and sobbing out his heartbreak on his friend’s shoulder. He was far too distraught to be embarrassed.
Eventually, the deluge of tears slowed to occasional sobs and hiccups. Finally, Johnny let go and sat back, wiping his face. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered.
“Stop it!” Roy ordered. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.” He helped Johnny to his feet. “Let’s get some coffee.”
Over coffee, Johnny told Roy about the phone call in more detail. Roy was stunned that someone would do such a thing, bringing such pain to another person. He listened to Rebecca’s message, stunned that she sounded simply tired rather than remorseful. But above it all, anger reigned. How could she hurt Johnny like that?
Still, over the years, Roy had learned quite a few things. Right now, Johnny needed his support because he wasn’t thinking, just feeling. While Roy wanted to castigate Rebecca, rip her to shreds, he knew that he couldn’t right then, no matter how tempting it was. If he did that, and Johnny and Rebecca decided to make a go of their marriage, he knew he would never be forgiven, so he kept his feelings to himself, encouraging Johnny to talk when he needed to, offering hot drinks to keep the shock at bay and finally giving him some alcohol and by mid-afternoon, Johnny was a lot calmer. When he eventually left Johnny, he thought his partner would be all right, although he had no doubts the night could well be very difficult.
The solitude was hard to take. Johnny was not naturally a crier, but the tears would start at odd moments. He tried to eat, but could barely choke down a mouthful and eventually gave up and went to bed. He was sure he wouldn’t sleep a wink, but after quite a while of lying awake, Johnny did finally fall asleep, although his dreams were less than restful.
He was calmer in the morning, although he knew the tears could surface at any time. Johnny found he was able to eat and was hungry. It had been over 24 hours since he had had anything. He made some toast and coffee and sat at the table, breathing in the aroma of the dark liquid. He was more than grateful he didn’t have to work that day.
During the night, Johnny realized that he had come to some conclusions. His marriage was very important to him and he would do what he had to do to save it. He would ring Rebecca and beg her to come home and they would talk. If she wanted him to give up the fire department, he would do it. He would do whatever it took to make their marriage whole again.
His calm lasted right up until the door bell rang about an hour later. He accepted the registered letter, signed for it and took it inside. His hands were shaking, for he recognized the handwriting – it was from Rebecca.
He didn’t want to read it, yet it he did. Butterflies fluttered miserably in his stomach, unsettling the food that had been so welcome just a short while before. For several minutes, Johnny just stood, looking at the handwriting that he knew as well as his own. He didn’t know whether to be hopeful or terrified. He was both. Finally, with shaking hands, he opened it.
I am so sorry you found out about my affair. You have to admit that things have not been all that good between us for a while now, have they? You are always so tired after your shifts and I am away a lot; that’s not a happy combination.
I thought I would let you know that I am not coming home straight away. I’m going to wait until I have completed this assignment. I met the Secretary of State last night and he has granted me an interview tomorrow. This is the most important thing that has happened to me! He was so funny, cracking jokes and flirting with me. Such a nice man.
I’ll be home in a few days like I planned. There are lots of other journalists here that I am networking with. There is even a TV producer that is interested in me being on a news show. Can you imagine it? Me, on TV?
The note drove daggers through his heart. She wasn’t coming home? Meeting the Secretary of State was the most important thing to have happened? What about their marriage? What about the last 10 years? What about him? Didn’t he count anywhere?
Angry, disbelieving, he rang her. There was no answer and he was obliged to leave another message. “Rebecca, its John. Please call me. We must talk about this. Please come home. I love you and we can get over this, I know we can. Please, Rebecca. Please come home now.”
All day he waited for her call. By the evening, he was a wreck, angry and confused, unable to understand how she could totally ignore him like this. He phoned again in the evening and got a disturbing message; Rebecca had checked out of her hotel earlier that day.
For a time, Johnny managed to convince himself that she was on her way, that she would be walking in the door at any moment. He waited for hours, convincing himself that she was held up in traffic, had to get gas, had stopped for something to eat. He reasoned that she would be nervous about coming home and was driving more slowly, but as evening gave into night and night was creeping towards dawn, he had to face the facts. His wife was not coming home.
Sleep was in short supply, but Johnny did not call in sick for his shift the next day. Numb, he knew he would be better off with something to keep his mind busy. The paperwork alone was enough to keep him busy for a week. With the incentive of keeping his mind occupied, Johnny actually got through the majority of it between runs, something almost unheard of for him.
It didn’t escape the notice of his crew that he was out of sorts. Johnny was quite friendly with them all, especially his engineer, who was a man in the same style as Mike Stoker, but he didn’t confide in him. There would be time enough to talk when he knew what was going to happen.
It was unheard of for a firefighter to want runs during the night, but Johnny hoped there would be. Something simple, like a dumpster fire; not a fire that would destroy someone’s home or business. In the end, his two paramedics were out a couple of times, but the engine was not toned out at all. Johnny slept intermittently.
When he got home, he hoped that Rebecca would be there, but the house was empty. He heard nothing from her that day and when Johnny called her office, they claimed not to have heard from her either. To keep busy, Johnny painted the eaves.
The following day was the day Rebecca had been due to come home. Against his will, Johnny felt his hopes rising. If she would just come home, they could sort it all out. The love was still there; surely that was all that mattered in the long run? He vacillated between hope and despair all day and was exhausted by night. Eventually he had to face the facts. Rebecca had not come home and she had not called him.
Wearily, he went to bed. As he washed his hands, he looked at the gold wedding ring he had worn with such pride for 10 years. A never-ending circle to signify their never-ending love. After looking at it for several long minutes, Johnny took it off and laid it on the bathroom counter. He knew now what he could not believe before.
His marriage was over.
Johnny took his next shift off. He told headquarters the real reason – so he could go and consult a divorce lawyer. He knew the news would filter down to everyone before the day was through. Facing everyone would be hard, but at least they would know and he wouldn’t have to explain it to everyone he met.
The lawyer was sympathetic and efficient. He talked Johnny through the separation agreement and filing for divorce, although there wasn’t much they could do until Rebecca had her own lawyer. Then the two lawyers could talk to each other. Johnny was more than happy to sell the house and split the proceeds with her, or Rebecca could buy Johnny out. Either would suit him. The house had always been more hers than his.
In fact, as he packed up her belongings in preparation for her coming to collect them at some point, he reflected on how much in the house was ‘hers’, and not ‘theirs’. He had bent over backwards so Rebecca could have what she wanted. Perhaps he had bent too far, he mused. Who knew what made people fall out of love?
Calls started to come in as the news filtered out. Roy was the first, making sure Johnny was all right, offering his complete, unconditional support. Johnny’s former crewmates from 51s were next, Chief Stanley, Captain Stoker, Engineer Lopez and Engineer Kelly. Johnny spoke to them, but most of the calls he just listened to over the answering machine.
There were one or two people that Johnny considered friends who offered half-hearted support. “I’m so sorry she’s left you,” one friend commented. “But she never did me any harm.”
Later in the afternoon, the doorbell rang and Johnny answered it reluctantly. He wasn’t sure he wanted to face anyone yet and he hoped against hope that it was not Rebecca. Taking a deep breath and mentally girding his loins, he opened to door to find Joanne DeSoto on the other side, clutching a casserole dish. “Joanne. What are you doing here?”
“We’re friends, remember?” she retorted good-naturedly as she walked into the house. “Friends visit other friends when they need a hug.” She walked into the kitchen and popped the casserole into the oven. “We’re going to eat that, you and I,” she added, turning the oven on and starting to rummage for plates.
“We are?” Johnny asked.
“Of course we are,” she replied, setting the table with the familiarity of an old friend, which she was. “Roy is working, you’re alone and so am I. And I’m pretty sure you have a bottle of wine here and we’ll drink that.” She opened another cupboard to find glasses and glanced back over her shoulder. “That was a hint,” she explained.
“You’re driving,” Johnny mentioned.
“No I’m not,” Joanne replied, bringing out two wine glasses. “Jenny brought me over and Chris is collecting me.”
“You’re sneaky,” Johnny admitted. He got out the bottle of wine and opened it.
“No, I’m organized,” Joanne corrected him. She took the glass he offered and held it up in a toast. “To the next chapter of your life.” She took a sip.
“The next chapter,” Johnny agreed, although he had less than no idea what the next chapter would be. He drank, too.
One of the advantages to being such old friends was that there were no uncomfortable silences. Any silence that fell was easy and didn’t last long. Joanne had brought one of Johnny’s favorite meals over, lamb shanks, and he relished it all the more, as Rebecca didn’t eat red meat.
It was only after they were finished and were sitting together on the couch with another bottle of wine that Joanne finally touched on the subject of Rebecca. “I see you’re not wearing your ring,” she commented neutrally.
“No.” Johnny took a sip to give himself a moment’s thinking time. “My first impulse was to do anything she wanted to save the marriage. I’d have quit the department in a heartbeat if that was what she had wanted. Honestly, Joanne that was what I was willing to do. But then she sent me that letter and was going on about it being fun to interview the Secretary of State and I’m thinking – what about us? Isn’t that more important? And then she disappeared. Well, I might not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but I’m not completely dumb either. I can tell what that means. The marriage is over.”
“I wish it hadn’t happened like this,” Joanne mentioned. “I’m so sorry that she hurt you, Johnny.” Joanne put her hand on his. “You deserve the world as far as I am concerned. How are you doing, facts aside?”
“I’m so hurt,” Johnny admitted. He felt tears prickling in his eyes. “I feel such a fool! How could I not know something was going on?”
“You loved her and trusted her,” Joanne replied, her own heart aching for his heartache. “That’s what marriage is all about. Or it should be.”
“I knew that we were going through a slightly rougher patch,” Johnny admitted. “But those happen. I didn’t think it was serious – more fool me,” he concluded bitterly.
“Well, unless you were throwing things at each other, I’m not surprised you thought it was just one of those patches,” Joanne agreed.
“You know, the worst thing is I think she might have been cheating on me for a while,” Johnny admitted. It was a relief to say it aloud. He had been thinking it now for a couple of days.
“Oh no!” Joanne exclaimed, but she didn’t tell him he was imagining it. “Why?”
“Do you remember a few months ago she was away working in Mexico, covering some story?” Joanne nodded. “When she came back, she brought me a watch. This watch.” He held his arm out. The time piece was very handsome with a silver and turquoise band. He only wore it at home, as it was clearly an expensive one. “I thought it was just a loving gift – you know, a spur of the moment thing. But thinking about it, she’d been away two days longer than I expected and the second day, I couldn’t get hold of her. She said she was travelling and the flights were mixed up and then…” He paused and looked at the glass in his hand and put it down before he gripped it so tightly it shattered. “When I put it on this morning, I looked closely at the box and there was a receipt in it. The maker is pretty well known and sells all over the US and Mexico, but the receipt is from Albuquerque.” He swallowed. “There have been other things, too, now that I can see the pattern.”
“I’m so sorry!” Joanne exclaimed and drew him into a hug. “Damn the woman! If I get my hands on her…”
Knowing Joanne’s temper, Johnny had no doubts at all that Rebecca would come off second best. “Don’t do anything you’d regret,” he advised her. “She’s not worth it.”
“You’re right,” Joanne agreed, sitting back. “She’s not. But if you want me to hire a hit man, I’ll ask around?”
Even 24 hours before, Johnny would have sworn there was no humor to be had in this situation. He laughed. “I’ll let you know.”
They talked on for another hour or two. Johnny caught up on the news of the kids. Neither of them were children any more. Chris was married with a baby on the way and had become a firefighter/paramedic. Jenny had been married and was now divorced, her husband having abused her. She had no children and was a teacher. Finally, Chris arrived to collect his mother and Johnny kissed her cheek as she left and went back inside to tidy up.
It warmed his heart to know that his friends cared so much for him. The phone had rung all evening and Johnny knew that eventually, he would have to get in touch with everyone who had called, but not tonight. While still stunned, Johnny was beginning to accept the situation. He knew he was doing the right thing in ending his marriage.
He went to bed and slept well.
Exactly a week after receiving the phone call, Rebecca turned up on the doorstep. He had to give her her due – she didn’t just unlock the door and walk in, she actually rang the doorbell. Unsuspecting, Johnny answered the door and stared at the beautiful blonde standing there.
Rebecca Gage was about 5ft 10 inches tall, slender, but with curves in the right places. She had arresting green eyes and was a beautiful woman. When she had left, she had had waist length hair. Now, it was short, very short. It suited her. Diamond earrings glittered in her ears. Expensive perfume tickled his nose. Neither the perfume nor the earrings were familiar. “Hi, honey, I’m home,” she commented and walked into the house past him.
This was the meeting Johnny had been dreading. He closed the door very carefully and followed her inside. She threw her handbag down on a chair as she always did and turned to look at him. “You’ve lost weight,” she said critically.
“Have I?” he answered. His heart was thudding painfully in his chest. He still loved her. He was still so angry with her he could have throttled her on the spot. His only defense was to be cool towards her. His pride was all that was left to him and he refused to allow her to see how much it all hurt.
“John, I’m sorry that you had to find out about me that way,” she offered. She didn’t sound sorry. “But let’s be honest, we weren’t the most compatible couple, were we? Oh, things were good in bed initially, but you got injured a lot and you’re always tired when you come home off shift, and then you wanted a baby. To be honest, I’m surprised we lasted as long as we did.”
For a long moment, Johnny was sure that if he looked down at the carpeting on the floor, he would see his heart lying there, crushed and broken, the blood leaking slowly out, because that was how it felt. “I thought you wanted a baby, too,” he replied, his voice remote and distant. His face felt stiff.
“I did love you,” she told him. “But not enough to mess up our lives with a baby. You seemed so dead set on it, though. I didn’t want to hurt you, so I told you I’d been checked out, too. I don’t know if I could have had kids or not, but I was on the pill. I had my tubes tied last week. I guess I should’ve been honest with you right from the start.”
“Why don’t you be honest with me now and tell me what you should have told me then,” he suggested and remarkably his sarcasm did not come through in his tone.
Neither of them sat down. “I did love you, Johnny,” Rebecca claimed, her tone softening. “I thought I could always love you, but I should have known better. I’m not cut out to be married, to be with one guy all the time. I tried to be a good wife to you, but I got bored. The stuff that you wanted, like a house in the country and kids, that isn’t me. I just didn’t know how to tell you and so I cheated.”
“I take it this isn’t the first time,” Johnny murmured. He was amazed at how detached he felt.
“No,” Rebecca admitted. “There have been others.”
It hurt. It hurt so badly that Johnny did not know how he could possibly still be alive, but he was. This time he did look for his heart on the floor, but astoundingly, it seemed to still be beating in his chest. “I think you should take your things and leave,” Johnny suggested. “I’ve already contacted a lawyer. Here’s the card with his number. Do you want to buy me out of the house? Or will we sell it?”
“You could buy me out,” Rebecca suggested.
“Why would I want to do that?” Johnny asked. “As you so rightly pointed out, I want a house in the country. We bought this house for you, not me.” He couldn’t stop the bitterness creeping into his voice. “Since we are childless, I suggest that we divide the house equally and both leave the marriage with what we came into it with. I won’t claim money from your salary if you agree to do the same.”
“And if I don’t?” she asked, not liking the fact that he had taken control.
“Then we go to court,” he replied. “I’m sure the media would pick up on your name in the court schedules.”
That was rather a threat, although Johnny did not know just how big a threat he had just made. Rebecca used her maiden name at work and had something of a reputation amongst other journalists and it wasn’t a good one. And as she was the one who had committed serial adultery and Johnny was a fire captain with several commendations for bravery and valor, she was going to come out looking very bad indeed. With very bad grace, she gave in. “All right. We sell the house and just take our belongings. Do you want the furniture?”
“No,” Johnny replied. “We can sell it and divide any money.” He wanted her gone now. “I’ve packed your stuff into boxes. Do you have a car?”
“My car is outside,” she replied. “Where’s my stuff?” She followed him into the spare room and looked at the boxes stacked there. “Give me a hand?” she enquired, smiling up at him in that way she had always done.
His first instinct was to say no, but then he reasoned that if he helped her, she would be out of there more quickly. He grabbed a couple of boxes and carried them out to the very fancy car that she had not been driving the previous week. He dropped the boxes by the car and went back for more, leaving her to stack them into the vehicle.
At last, it was done and she looked up at him. “How about a hug for old time’s sake?” she asked.
He didn’t bother to reply to that. “I’ll vacate the house as soon as possible.” He didn’t say that he had already started packing. Without saying another word, he turned and went inside.
Leaning against the closed door, Johnny heard the car start up and drive away. Only then did he let go, sliding down the door until he was crouched at the bottom, sobbing into his hands. All their married life had been a lie and he hadn’t seen it. Rebecca had lied to him throughout and he felt completely worthless.
Returning to work was a thought. Johnny knew that his crew knew; he just didn’t want them to say anything about it. However, he reasoned that it would be over and done with at roll call if at all and after that he could immerse himself in his work. He was also intending to look at the property pages of the paper and find an apartment so that they could get the house on the market as soon as possible and once everything was done and dusted and his legal bills paid, he could find somewhere more permanent to stay.
Typically, it was Simon Mann, his engineer, who spoke to Johnny on behalf of the whole crew. Simon made a bee-line for the office when he arrived, knocked respectfully and went in. C shift’s captain immediately made himself scarce and Johnny gestured to a seat. “What’s on your mind, Simon?”
Remaining standing, Simon looked ill at ease. “I’d just like to say, on behalf of the crew, how sorry we are to hear about your wife. If you need anything at all, Cap, just let us know.”
There it was, the horribly difficult moment, which actually wasn’t that difficult after all, thanks to Simon’s formal statement. “Thank you,” Johnny managed. “I will.”
Nodding, Simon replied, “Cap.” He left without saying anything else. Johnny was both relieved and deeply touched.
It was a busy shift and his apartment hunting had to wait. Between house fires, warehouse fires and an MVA, they were kept on the hop for the whole shift. Johnny was glad to be heading for home, even if it didn’t feel like his home any longer. He fell straight into bed and slept deeply for about 5 hours. He was roused by the phone ringing. “Hello?” he mumbled.
“Johnny, its Jenny,” said a familiar voice. “I haven’t woken you, have I?” She sounded remorseful.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied honestly. “I forgot to set an alarm. How are you, Jenny?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Jenny replied. “Johnny, dad told me about Rebecca. I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied. He wondered how long it would be before he no longer got pangs through his heart when someone mentioned Rebecca.
“Johnny, mom mentioned that you’re going to be looking for a new place. I just thought I’d let you know that the apartment next to mine is going to be vacant next week. It’s a nice place, not too far from the station and the rent’s pretty reasonable. I’m not trying to influence you, but I just thought you would like to know. I can ask the manager to let you in to have a look before it’s advertised if you like?” At her end of the phone, Jenny crossed her fingers.
“That sounds great, Jen,” Johnny replied. “Yes, I would like to see it.” When Jenny had left her husband, she had been lucky enough to find a lovely apartment in a good area almost at once. Johnny had been there several times and had really liked it.
“Great,” Jenny grinned, uncrossing her fingers. “What’s your schedule like? I know that you could see it today, but obviously I don’t want to rush you, seeing as I was just rude enough to wake you. So you’re off tomorrow…”
“Jenny, I can come today,” Johnny interrupted. “I don’t have any other plans.” He wasn’t going to contact a realtor until he had somewhere else to go and the sooner he had somewhere else to go, the sooner he could contact a realtor. “I can be over there in an hour?”
“That sounds brilliant, Johnny,” Jenny replied. “Just come to my apartment first.” She blew a little kiss down the phone to him, something she had done since she was a little girl. “See you then.” She hung up the phone and did a little dance around the room. She hoped she had just managed to save Johnny a lot of time and shoe leather looking for a new place to live.
As Jenny had known he would, Johnny loved the apartment. It was the mirror image to hers and just across the landing from her. It was on the top floor, so he was less likely to be disturbed by noise during the day if he needed to sleep. Most of the people in the building were young professionals, either single or couples, but there were no children. It had hardwood floors throughout and came unfurnished apart from a fridge/freezer. It was smaller than his house, but that didn’t matter. He would bring his comfortable old chair, which Rebecca had absolutely hated, but which had belonged to his grandfather, the bookcase he had made and some rugs he had bought once on a trip back to Montana. Apart from his personal possessions and clothes, he would be bringing nothing from the house. It wouldn’t be difficult to pick up a small table and a couple of chairs, a couch and a new bed. Perhaps a coffee table.
With a smile, he turned to Jenny. “I’ll take it!” he exclaimed and she clapped her hands, then threw herself into his arms and kissed his cheek.
“I knew you’d like it!” she crowed. “Oh, Johnny, it’ll be so nice living near you. I don’t see nearly enough of you, you know.”
“We’ll squabble over whose turn it is to have your mom and dad over,” he joked.
“Doesn’t matter whose turn it is,” Jenny responded. “I’ll do the cooking. I know you!”
“Hey, my hamburger and hot dog days are long gone,” Johnny protested, not altogether truthfully. While he could cook now, he still preferred to make easy things and when he was on his own, hamburgers and hot dogs suited him.
“Of course they are,” Jenny agreed with utter skepticism in her voice. “And there’s a squadron of pigs flying past in formation as we speak.” They laughed together as Johnny pretended to see them.
“All right, where do I sign?” he asked. Jenny led him to the superintendent’s office and Johnny signed the lease for the apartment for a year. He could extend it if he wanted to, but he thought a year gave him plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do.
“Jenny, I don’t know how to thank you,” he told her as he stood by his car. “Let me take you out for dinner?”
“I’d love to,” she replied. “Say where and when. I’ve got nothing planned.”
They agreed on a day and time and Johnny kissed her cheek as he left, thinking what a beautiful woman she had grown into. Jenny watched him go, delighted to have helped him on the first step of his new life.
With his moving in date just 10 days away, Johnny set to and started packing with a vengeance. He dutifully divided the photographs, putting duplicates and Rebecca’s family ones into a box for her and leaving her the wedding album. He kept only the photo of himself and Roy, taken at the door of the church. He kept the photos he had taken, blown up and framed and all the knick-knacks that belonged to him. He kept the stoneware dishes that Rebecca hadn’t liked, and some pots and pans and serving dishes. The too-feminine bedding was dumped for the more masculine stuff he had had before they were married. It really didn’t take that long.
Once it was done, Johnny called the realtor that Rebecca had agreed upon and the house was soon listed. It had gained in value since they bought it and Johnny would come out of the arrangement with some money after the mortgage was paid off. He arranged for someone to come and collect the furniture and other items to sell, although he didn’t expect to make much from it. Then he went shopping and picked up a new bed, table and chairs.
It was all very cathartic and Johnny felt really free. Since Rebecca wasn’t contesting the divorce, it wouldn’t be all that long before it was finalized and he would be truly free. In the meantime, he was taking steps into the future and starting to heal.
“Dad, I’d like to talk to you,” Jenny declared. They were sitting on the deck at her parents’ house. Joanne was inside cooking.
“Just me?” Roy asked. “Not your mom, too?”
“I’ll talk to mom after,” Jenny replied. “But it’s you I want to speak to first.”
“This sounds serious,” Roy commented, straightening up.
“Not in the way you mean,” Jenny replied. “But I do want to have a serious discussion with you. I want you to listen to what I have to say and not to get angry.”
“I’ll listen,” Roy promised, “but I can’t say that I won’t get angry, especially since you think that’s likely. I might.” He frowned at her. “You’ve got me worried now.”
“All right, it’s just this.” Jenny clasped her hands over her knees. “Dad, I’m telling you – not asking, but telling – that I’m going to ask Johnny out.”
“Johnny who?” Roy enquired, rather confused.
“Dad, don’t be obtuse,” Jenny scolded. “How many Johnnys do you know?” She looked at his blank face. “Johnny Gage? Your friend and partner? That Johnny.”
“That Johnny?” Roy blinked. He wondered why she thought he would be angry. He knew that Jenny and Johnny were friends. “I’m sure Johnny would love to go out with you sometime.”
“What?!” Roy was really confused now.
“Listen, I know you haven’t dated since the dinosaurs were on earth, but I’m not just talking about a casual ‘going out’. I’m talking about asking Johnny if he would like to date me.” Jenny looked at her father. “I know he’s almost 20 years older than me. I know he’s just getting divorced. Yes, he might well still think of me as a little kid. No, I don’t want to go out with someone of my own age.” She paused. “Have I covered everything you were going to say?”
“Um… I think so,” Roy nodded. He was feeling a bit shell-shocked. “Err… I take it you haven’t asked Johnny yet?”
“Not yet,” Jenny agreed. “But I’m going to, when we go out to dinner tomorrow night.”
“Well, when you put it like that, who am I to say anything?” Roy murmured. “Did you really think I’d be angry?”
“Yeah, I did,” she nodded. “You’ve often told me that some guy was too old for me – like when I was 16 and he was 19.”
“True,” Roy agreed. He thought about it. “I probably wouldn’t have liked it if Johnny had come to me and asked me if he could go out with you. I’m still not quite comfortable about it, but give me time. I know Johnny’s a decent guy and he won’t hurt you. Just remember that he is in the process of getting a divorce and he’s still healing.”
“I know,” Jenny agreed. “But dad, there is one thing you should know; I’m in love with Johnny. I have been for a long time. And it’s not puppy love. I’m 25 now, I’ve been married and I’m divorced. I learned the hard way about puppy love. Obviously, I’m not going to tell him that right now. But I do want your blessing. I don’t want it to spoil your friendship.”
“Trust me, Jen,” Roy soothed, taking her in his arms. “It won’t spoil our friendship.”
They had a great evening. Johnny had always got on well with Jenny and about the only time he had not seen her regularly was when she was married. Her husband had not liked her spending time with anyone else and seemed to particularly dislike Johnny. Looking back, Jenny could now see what she hadn’t been aware of then. He ex looked like Johnny; tall and slim with dark hair and eyes. She didn’t know if her ex had been aware that she was trying to find someone like Johnny, but he had really hated the paramedic fire captain and had banned him from their home. While she knew that it wasn’t her fault that her husband had been violent, she wondered if perhaps he had realized that she was in love with Johnny, for it seemed blindingly obvious to her now that she had always been in love with Johnny.
For his part, it sometimes seemed surreal that this beautiful, accomplished young lady was the same little girl he had first known some 18 years before. He had watched her grow up, moving from playing with dolls to having crushes on grubby-looking rock bands, dying her hair unsuitable colors, through her teacher training and her unfortunate marriage. It was lucky that Jenny had had the sense to leave, although it had taken over a year for her to pluck up the courage and tell anyone what was going on. Wisely, she had made an appointment with Luke Smith, the psychologist Johnny had met many years ago and someone who had become a close personal friend, and had talked about what had happened, accepting that it was not her fault.
“Johnny, our head teacher is retiring at the end of term,” Jenny mentioned over dessert. “He’s throwing a big party, with dinner and dancing. Would you be able to come with me?”
“What’s the date?” Johnny asked, reaching for his diary.
“The 16th,” she replied, having checked in advance that he was not working that day. It was very handy that he was on the same shift as her dad.
“No, I’m not working,” he replied. “I’d be glad to escort you, Jenny.” He made a note in the diary. “But don’t you have someone your own age to take?”
Rolling her eyes, Jenny laughed. “I don’t want to date someone my own age,” she explained. “Dad always says that too! But I want to date you. John, I would like to see more of you. I’d like you to be my boyfriend.”
Thunderstruck, Johnny gazed at her. “Jenny…”
“All right, let me tell you a few things,” she interrupted before he could refuse. “Dad is cool with this. I spoke to him about it a few days ago. No, I don’t think you’re too old for me. Yes, I can see that you might still see me as a child. Johnny, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here. I fancy you. I have feelings for you. I know you’re not ready for that, so let’s just take it slow and have fun with each other. I want you to see me as a woman and I’m willing to wait until you can.”
“Jenny…” Johnny wasn’t often tongue-tied. He didn’t see her as a child. He hadn’t for a long time, but by then he was married and his vows meant a lot to him. He wouldn’t have dishonored Rebecca, Jenny or Roy by behaving badly. Now though, Jenny was saying all the things he needed to hear. He knew it was too soon for him to date anyone seriously, but if they were having fun, his heart would have time to heal and then he could explore his feelings. “I’d love to date you,” he concluded.
They talked for hours and went they went home, Johnny kissed her gently and left her. He was going to court the girl properly.
His move to the apartment was accomplished with stunning ease. There wasn’t much to move. Johnny hired a van, Roy and Mike Stoker both came to help since they all worked the same shift and Joanne and Jenny washed out cupboards and put things away in the kitchen while the men moved the furniture around. Rebecca’s belongings had been handed over to her lawyer and the rest had either been taken away to get sold or dumped. The day after the move, Johnny went back to the house and vacuumed it from top to toe, checked that nothing had been left and thankfully handed over the keys.
The following night was their first official date. The dress code was smart, but not black tie, so Johnny chose a grey suit. Jenny, when he picked her up across the landing, was wearing a bright blue sleeveless cocktail dress with matching high heels. Her long blonde hair hung loose down her back and Johnny thought she was breathtaking.
He was braced for the first few moments to be awkward as her colleagues looked on them with disapproval at the age gap, but he was pleasantly surprised. Nobody seemed perturbed that he was so much older than she was and he was soon chatting away to the others at their table.
It was a magical evening. Johnny and Jenny danced a lot and made a very striking couple. They were also completely at ease with each other. Johnny was sitting at the table while Jenny danced with one of her colleagues and the lady sitting across from him leaned over. “You two really are very nice together,” she told him. “How long have you been going out?”
“Um… this is our first official date,” Johnny replied, flushing. “But I’ve known Jenny a long time.”
“Oh yes, I can tell,” the lady replied. “You’re obviously very much in love.”
“Oh. Thank you,” Johnny muttered. Is that how they looked? He was stunned. He didn’t know if he was in love with Jenny. His heart was too bruised to even think about love. Rebecca’s betrayal was still too new to allow for other emotions to take hold. For a moment, he wondered if he was doing the wrong thing in going out with Jenny; he didn’t want to hurt her or lead her along. But then he remembered what she had said to him. This was just for fun. She had been through a divorce and knew that it took time to recover.
“What is it?” Jenny asked, sitting down next to him.
“Nothing,” he lied, smiling at her.
“Don’t give me that,” she retorted, smiling back. “I can tell.” She nudged him gently. “Spill it, Gage.”
Smiling, he told her what their dinner companion had said. Jenny didn’t seem perturbed. “I know you’re not ready for something new,” she told him. “You’re not leading me on. Mrs. Peterson was only seeing what she wanted to see. She’s been after me to get a new man for a long time. And you can’t deny we’re comfortable together. We have known each other for 20 years or so.”
“Do you have to remind me?” Johnny asked, only half-joking. “I’m far too old for you.”
“Right, let’s get this straightened out now,” Jenny scolded. “You’re not too old for me as far as I am concerned. It’s not like you’re 86 and I’m 25 – that is perverted. Yes, you are older than me, but so are a lot of people. I don’t think the age gap is going to be a problem. If you do, then tell me. But you’re young at heart, Johnny; you always were. And if it’s only the opinions of others that concern you, then forget them. Who can say why a marriage works or doesn’t? My parents have been together since 4th grade and an awful lot of people told them it was puppy love and wouldn’t last. A lot of my friends have had two or three step-parents. You can only know what’s right for you.”
“You’re right,” Johnny agreed. “I am proud to be seen with you, Jenny and very proud to be your boyfriend.” He leaned over and sealed his words with a tender kiss.
“It’s definitely love!” Mrs. Peterson declared when they came up for air and they both just smiled at her.
Getting divorced was not quite as easy as Johnny had thought it would be. Although Rebecca wasn’t contesting the divorce, her lawyer seemed bound and determined to mess everything up, not passing on messages to Rebecca, not answering phone calls or letters from Johnny’s lawyer. At one horrible point, Johnny thought that he was going to lose half his pension to her and it was only an urgent call from his lawyer direct to Rebecca – unethical, but necessary – that sorted that one out.
The sale of the house was going slowly, too, despite the buoyant market. Johnny didn’t know if the area it was in was unfashionable, or that the house needed work that he had been unable to see or quite what was wrong, but the swift sale the realtor had promised hadn’t come to pass. He was still paying for the house and that on top of his rent was creating a considerable hole in his finances.
And then suddenly, after almost five months, everything was concluded at once. The realtor phoned him at work to say that there had been an offer on the house and it was slightly above the asking price. Johnny accepted at once. Shortly after that, his lawyer called to say that their divorce would be going in front of the judge in a few days and within the next month he would be a free man. It was all a monumental relief.
It was also rather a shock. When he got home and had time to think about it, he realized how drastically his life had changed in just a few short months. His marriage was over, his house was gone, he was a single man and he had a young girlfriend. About the only thing that hadn’t changed was his job, and he was more than glad of that. It gave him something concrete to hang on to.
He decided to give himself some breathing space and given that Jenny was going away with some friends for a couple of weeks, his timing couldn’t have been better. He quietly let his friends know that he wasn’t going to be going anywhere but work and spent some time doing some hiking, something that he had hadn’t done enough of in years. Rebecca hadn’t been the outdoorsy type and Johnny had gradually cut down the amount of time he spent hiking and camping. It wasn’t till the first morning he woke up under canvas that he realized how very much he had missed it.
Now that he had time alone to mourn, Johnny could see how much effort he had put into the marriage and how little effort Rebecca had given to it. He had fallen head over heels in love with her and when she agreed to marry him, he could hardly believe it, because for all the work he had done over the years with Luke to learn to believe in himself, he still didn’t see himself as a loveable person. Because of that, he had hidden from himself the qualms that had surfaced, because he thought that if he confronted her and they argued, she would leave, validating his idea that he wasn’t fit to be loved.
With a little perspective on the matter, Johnny realized that it was better to be alone than to be so subservient to another person. He had been burying his own needs to cater to Rebecca’s needs. He had had indigestion every day for almost a year before she left him and yet it had gone within a month. The tension headaches that had plagued him also disappeared. He was sleeping better, eating better and had regained the weight he had lost at the time of the separation.
Looking back, Johnny could see that Rebecca had been getting away with cheating on him for a long time. He could see the periods when she wasn’t where he expected her to be, or she was unexpectedly out of touch and he had accepted everything she said to him as an excuse because he loved her.
He wondered how she could sleep at night.
As nature began to work its healing magic, Johnny took a couple of days personal leave to give himself more time to relax. He fished and took photographs, he hiked and camped and cooked hotdogs over an open fire. He communed with the Spirits in ways that he hadn’t for years. That was something else he had pushed aside for Rebecca; she was embarrassed by his beliefs.
He arrived back at his apartment a few days later, his skin glowing with fresh air and sunshine, his mind and body at peace. While he knew he was not yet completely healed – that would take some more time – he knew he was in a much, much better place than he had been for years. He had learned a lot from looking back at his marriage with the perspective of a little time and knew that he didn’t want to waste his time with anyone who did not allow him to be himself.
That evening, he phoned Roy. “Hey, Pally. Is it all right if I come over tomorrow?”
“When have you ever needed to ask?” Roy replied. “Of course it’s all right. How was your camping?”
“Healing,” Johnny replied. “Very healing.”
The Johnny who arrived at Roy’s the following afternoon was so much more like the Johnny of their younger days that for a moment, Roy felt a jealous pang. Johnny’s hair was still dark and thick although he wore it much shorter. Roy’s hair was receding and it was almost pure white. He had put on a few pounds and Johnny was still whip slim. Worst of all, Johnny looked tanned all the time and Roy tended to turn into a lobster in the sun. He grinned. “Still trying to show me up, huh, pal?” he asked, gesturing to his friend’s body. “You look really good, Johnny.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied, smiling. “You don’t look too bad yourself.”
“Aw, suck it up,” Roy retorted good naturedly. “We both know you look a lot younger than me.”
“I am a lot younger than you,” Johnny dead-panned, although there was only a couple of years between them. They laughed comfortably at an old joke.
Armed with a beer, they went out to sit on the deck. “I wanted to talk to you about Jenny,” Johnny opened.
“I know about you and her,” Roy replied.
“Knowing and seeing are two different things,” Johnny responded wisely. “How would you feel if she came out here right now and sat down on my lap and we started making out?”
“The same way I’d feel if anyone did that,” Roy informed him. “I don’t want to see that kind of thing, thank you. I’m not into voyeurism. But as for Jenny coming out and sitting on your lap and kissing you, I dare say it would seem a bit odd at first. I’m not used to seeing the adult Jenny doing that.”
Smiling, Johnny asked, “Roy if you want me to back off, I will. I don’t want to hurt Jenny and I care for her very deeply, but I don’t want to hurt you, either.”
For a long moment, Roy looked at Johnny. “Do you remember, years ago, we had a discussion about gays? Right here, if I remember correctly. Timmy Simmons at 36 had just come out and there was a big brouhaha about it. Half the department wanted him kicked out and the other half were shrugging and asking what the big deal was.”
“I remember,” Johnny murmured, wondering where this was going.
“I wasn’t sure what I felt about it all. I was never a gay basher, but I just didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. But you nailed it for me and I don’t think I ever got the chance to thank you for clearing it all up for me. You said that love should be celebrated, wherever it is found. What difference does it make if a man loves another man or a woman loves another woman? Love is a gift. You taught me that and I believe it.” Roy put his hand on Johnny’s arm. “And I believe it when a man loves a woman, even if she is younger than him. I told Jenny this and I am telling you, too. You seeing her won’t hurt our friendship – it hasn’t, has it? – and unless you deliberately set out to hurt her, I see no reason why it should come between us. And since we can’t marry off any of your offspring to any of mine, what better way to keep you in the family?”
“Roy, I’m not ready to ask for Jenny’s hand yet.” Johnny was being honest. “At the moment, it’s too soon. I don’t want to hurt her.”
“I know that. I’m just letting you know how I feel.” Roy patted the arm he was still touching. “There’s no problem.”
“Thanks.” Johnny relaxed, trembling slightly. He hadn’t realized how anxious he had been about this meeting. “Did I tell you about meeting Rebecca’s parents?” he asked.
“You said you had,” Roy replied, doubtfully.
“They hated me,” Johnny stated baldly. “Right from the moment they saw me, they hated me. I wasn’t good enough for Rebecca. It was bad enough that I’m an Indian – Native American; take your pick – but to be a half-breed was really beyond the pale. They were really rich and Rebecca was an only child. She married me partly because she was a rebel. She hadn’t done anything her parents wanted her to do with her life and she wasn’t about to start then. They kept in touch with her, came to the wedding, but I was utterly invisible. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she’d had a child.”
“To be honest, Rebecca and I didn’t get on that well,” Roy confessed. “And Joanne wasn’t wild about her either, although they did become casual friends.”
“I never realized,” Johnny muttered. “God, what else was I blind to?”
“You didn’t realize because I didn’t make a show of my dislike. She was your wife and that was good enough for me. Johnny, you shouldn’t have to go through life worrying about the other person’s motives. That isn’t healthy. If the person you are with doesn’t accept you for who you are, then you’re with the wrong person.” He gestured to the house. “Joanne and I wouldn’t still be together after all these years if we hadn’t accepted each other as we are.”
“You’re right,” Johnny acknowledged. “It’s taken me six months to realize that I wasn’t as happy in my marriage as I always thought.” He shook his head. “She must think I’m a real patsy.”
“There was love there,” Roy protested. “It might not have lasted on her side, but she did love you, Johnny. It wasn’t all bad and with a bit more time, you’ll come to see that, too.”
“I guess,” he agreed. Roy’s words reminded him that he still needed time to finish recovering. “Thanks, Roy.”
“My pleasure,” Roy replied. It was good to see the Johnny he knew and loved on the way back.
It was late when he returned to his apartment. There was a light on in Jenny’s place, so he knew she was home. He resisted the temptation to knock on her door. He was tired and there was always tomorrow.
That was the thing Johnny had finally learned on his camping trip. While his past was still sore enough to hurt when touched, his tomorrows glowed brightly with promise. His life was not over by a long shot. While he still had some healing to do, he was starting to move forward into his future and at the moment, it was a glistening stretch of golden sand, just waiting for footprints. Johnny didn’t know if the footprints would be solitary ones, or walk in tandem with another. His thoughts touched on Jenny briefly. It was too soon for him to make any decisions, but he could hope and dream that he would find someone to love, who would love him back and with whom he could start a family.
It was strange to think how much his life had changed in such a short time. He had gone from the depths of despair to the heights of optimism in a few short months. Now, he would learn to live alone again and take joy from the things he loved in life and when the time came, he would know when he was ready to love again.
There was a knock on the door and he smiled.
Perhaps his future was closer than he thought.
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