Longest night of his life. Not even the blunt he'd rolled and smoked helped him sleep.
His own fault, he imagined. He could still see the look in her eye when he'd said it. He was fairly sure he'd never realized before his cheek could feel, or not feel as was the case for quite a few minutes after she left him at the library.
What did she expect?
She dropped a bomb on him, something he wasn't expecting because he was always so careful. It was just what everyone expected out of someone like him, knock someone up before graduation and be stuck in a miserable life just like his parents'. He was having none of that. He'd suffered too much, made it this far, and finally he saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
A way out.
She was the last person he ever expected to come to him with claims of being pregnant. A few other girls he might have expected it from, sure, because he was a better option for them then where they were currently. Ironic because certainly doing the right thing and marrying her or at least stepping up and being involved would certainly improve his lifestyle.
He knew, though, if she told him it wasn't a lie or a maybe. She wouldn't do that he didn't think, not that he claimed to know her well but she didn't seem the type. What would she have to gain by claiming he was the one who'd done it? Lower her social standing quite a few pegs. Yeah, like she'd do that for him. Then his father had somehow landed his mother so things worked in mysterious ways.
His old man. He hated him. Some might say hate was too strong of a word, but John didn't think it was strong enough. John couldn't ever remember a time he didn't live in some sort of fear. In the beginning it wasn't cigars or a belt, but just a hand. Sometimes when he was real little it was just a few words. Words and hands hurt just as much, he knew this very well.
His mom? He wanted to hate her. In some ways he supposed he did but different than how he felt about his father. His mom stood by for the past eighteen years while his father delivered the beatings, physical, mental, and verbal, on her son. He may not hate her, but he'd never forgive her.
There would never be Sunday dinners with his folks. He'd rather eat Banquet pot pies alone for the rest of his life than walk across the threshold of their miserable home ever again. Whatever happened he would be damned sure that she never, ever allowed either of his parents to see his kid.
He rang the bell, wondering if he would be home. Anyone who was anyone was across town at the hotel where prom was. John was not anyone, obviously. Claire was certainly. At some point she and her date, Adam Lavene, would get their crowns. He wondered if there was, in fact, a hotel room in store for the royal couple tonight. He wouldn't blame her exactly, and he tried to ignore the feeling that was eating him at the visuals of sex with Claire in a bed like it was meant to be done that popped to mind. She hadn't complained about their time together, but he knew he could certainly show her a much better time in a bed.
"Uh, hi," he said. "Mrs. Johnson. Is Brian home?"
"Sure," she said. "Are you a friend of his?"
She was asking because John was pretty sure no friend of Brian's looked remotely anything like John did. So he tried not to be insulted.
"Um, sort of," he shrugged for lack of a better answer. Not really wouldn't get him in the door. "We go to Shermer High together. My name's John Bender."
"It's nice to meet you, John, come in. He's watching a movie or something in the basement. You can go on down. Do you know the way?"
"I can show you," she said.
"Thank you," he said, trying to be polite. He knew how. You couldn't grow up in the town he grew up in and not at least know what manners were. He just chose not to abide by the expectations most people put on him. His parents didn't teach it to him so why should he care if he was supposed to say please or thank you to someone.
"No date for prom tonight either?" she asked as he fell into step behind her.
He chuckled softly. "No, ma'am, no date for prom."
"I tried telling Brian this, but it's not the end of the world."
"He asked someone I suppose?"
"He did," she said with a frown. He'd love to see Brian's mother have a talk with the girl who rejected her son's invitation. That would be a sight to see, and something his mother would never do. In fact, he was pretty sure his mom was too wasted to even know it was prom weekend.
"I'm sorry," he said for lack of anything else to say.
"Well, here it is," she said, opening a door. "Brian," she called down the stairs. "You have company. Go on down, John."
"Thank you, Mrs. Johnson."
He made his way downstairs, following the direction of the sound of a TV.
"So what are we watching, Brian?"
To say Brian looked frightened was an understatement.
"What are you doing here?"
John shrugged, sitting on the opposite end of the couch. "Came to see what you were doing on prom night. Figured maybe you'd like to grab a pizza."
"Yup," he said, glancing at the TV. He had no idea what Brian was watching.
"Because you're the smartest person I know and I need that brain of yours for a couple of hours."
"You know it'd be a lot easier if you just came with me and let me explain why over pizza. Come on, staying holed up down here in the dark because some chick told you no isn't the way to spend the night."
"How did you know?"
He chuckled. "People like me know everything. Besides, your mom told me."
"Mom," Brian murmured with a roll of his eyes as he used a remote control to turn the movie and then the TV off. He regarded John for a minute. "You're not going to hurt me are you? Finals are done so you're not here to ask me to cheat for you."
"All I care about is passing, that's taken care of. Bender will be one of the last names called during the ceremony."
"You just want to talk to me?"
"Yes, you think I'd show up here, introduce myself to your mother if my intent was to hurt you?"
He seemed to think on that and stood then. "You have a car?"
"Mom," Brian said once they got upstairs. "John and I are going out for pizza."
"Are you sure, dear? I was going to bring you something in a little bit since you had company."
"No, thanks, Mom. I'll be back later."
"Okay. Have fun. Don't be too late now."
John glanced at Mrs. Johnson standing in the doorway, watching as he drove her son off the driveway. She waved, Brian reluctantly did the same. John chuckled.
"Nothing," he said, deciding being a smart ass was probably not the way to get Brian to listen to him.
The pizza place was pretty dead. Only a smattering of people like he and Brian who were dateless on the big night were in there. There were a few couples, people either too young for prom or who couldn't afford the ticket price.
"So, what's this about, John? No offense, but you haven't said more than two words to me at school since that day and now you show up at my house. How did you know where I live anyway?"
John shrugged. "I just do."
"Okay then, I'll try to pretend that's not creepy. You bought the pizza, so I'll hear you out."
"You're a geek, right?"
"Is that offensive? You're a smart person. You read, you research, you pay attention to studies and stuff. Is that better?"
"Say someone grew up you know, bad."
"Yeah, you know, no loving waves at the door, no mom's to bring food down to the basement because company showed up. Probably company showing up never happened because it was so bad."
"Maybe instead of those things there was lots of hands on, but not in the good kind of way."
Brian's eyes widened, knowing full well who John was talking about, but he said nothing and merely nodded.
"So, what are the odds that sort of upbringing rubs off on them for them to repeat it? I mean, I've always heard the abused becomes the abuser. Is it actually true? Or is that just one of those things people say to warn normal people away from damaged ones?"
"I," Brian said with a pause. "Well, it's hard to say. I mean, I haven't done research on the subject. Psychology isn't my field of study."
"Guess then, Brian."
"You want me to guess?"
"Yes, hypothetically, could a person like that ever be a good father? Mother? Anything?"
Brian ran his fingers through his hair, taking a sip of his pop.
"Well, hypothetically, I think if the person acknowledged his Ė or her Ė past might affect them they'd possibly be more careful to not repeat the behavior, therefore ending the cycle."
"The cycle," John muttered.
"I mean, there's help. People to talk to, you know, to help learn to control anger."
"Not an option."
"I don't know what you want me to say. Are you looking for a particular answer?"
"No," he said.
"This is you we're talking about, right?"
"I've watched you since that day. I'd seen you around before that day, too, of course. My general opinion is that you're really not a bad guy."
"You want people to think you are. I'm not saying you don't succeed at being scary. You don't want friends. If you have friends they'll expect you to invite them back to your house for cookies and milk. I suspect years of embarrassment about your home life have led you to where you are today. Alone."
"You think I want to be alone?" he asked as the pizza was brought to them.
"I think it was a defense mechanism. If you let someone get close enough to see the real you, your real life I mean, then you'd never know if they were really your friend or if they felt sorry for you and stayed friends with you out of pity. So you surround yourself with the burnouts and thugs because you can hang out, get high, and seem like you have friends when you really don't. It's all surface stuff."
"You're getting away from my question."
"I'm not. My point is I don't think you're the big bad violent criminal you've worked so hard to hone the image of for years. I think you know what's right and what's wrong and you'd live your life accordingly. I think you toe the line away from being respectable because that's what people like Mr. Vernon expect to see. So you give it to them because it's easier than letting them know they might be wrong about you."
"And if you're wrong?"
He stared at him for a minute. "Are you going to be a dad? Did you get somebody pregnant?"
"Just answer the question."
"I don't know. Again, there's help."
"Would you trust me alone with your kid?"
"A kid? Maybe. A baby? Probably not," he said quickly. "I mean, but it would be mine. We're not talking about mine here. This is yours we're talking about. Right? Not everyone has to repeat their past. Not everyone has to be miserable. I think if you convince yourself, set yourself up to repeat the abuse then it'll happen. I think we're able to program ourselves after years of self-doubt or self-loathing into becoming what we fear most."
"I don't want to become him."
"I don't want a baby to have this life."
"Then don't do it."
"I should walk away?"
"I don't know. Only you know the answer to that, but you could do something to ensure you can give the baby a better life."
"Like what? I don't have the brains you do and I don't have the athletic ability Andrew had for a scholarship. That leaves money. I don't have that either."
"I'm just pointing out the possibilities. If you don't think you should walk away. There are some good community colleges around here that could help you build your transcript up to a respectable level to get into a four year college. You could still work and everything. I can help you fill out the paperwork if you need help."
"She'd be better off."
"Without you? Is that what you think? She who? The baby? Is it a girl? Do you already have a baby and you're just now getting around to asking these questions?"
"No, I don't know that yet, she just told me. The mother. I meant the mother."
"Isn't that for her to decide?"
"No, because she'll have us living in a little bungalow with a little white picket fence and eighteen years later I'll be on the opposite end of things than I am today."
"You don't know that. Yes, of course, the abused can turn into the abuser, but a non-abused kid can grow up and become an abuser, too. Truth is you just don't know. You haven't even gotten out of your house yet to know how you'll function in the world without their influence."
"Has she said she wants to marry you?"
"No," he said. She hadn't even really hinted at that being what she wanted.
"Maybe she just wants you to be a dad, John. Maybe she just wants to be in this with someone instead of going it alone. It happens, sure, but not at our school very often. Not everyone is bad or out to trap you. This was an accident?"
"Yes! I didn't impregnate her on purpose. I wouldn't do that."
Brian held his hands up. "Hey, just asking. You never know, some people do weird things this close to graduation when the idea that there's nothing for them on the other side of that diploma starts to become more than just a passing idea."
"I didn't do it intentionally. Neither did she, I assure you."
"So, maybe she just wants you involved."
John shrugged. This conversation was not helping at all.
"Do you want to be involved?"
John stared at him, eating his pizza. "I don't know."
"Well, how is that any better for your kid than what you've had?"
"How is not knowing his or her father at all going to benefit your kid? I mean, that's what you're talking about, right? Just walking away?"
"Yeah. They'd be better off."
"You really believe that?"
"I think it's a risk having me around."
"So you spend time with the baby when she's around. I mean, you made a baby together you must like her."
"You don't need to like someone to have sex with them, Brian. If you get rid of that idiotic idea you might just have some fun when you go to college."
"So you don't like her?"
"I donít know what I feel for her. I hardly know her. We had sex it wasn't a relationship."
"Have you ever had a relationship?"
"I'm not the one who's going to be a dad pretty soon."
"What does that have to do with this situation?"
Brian shrugged. "Nothing I guess, but if she has a girl I have to wonder how you'd feel if someone does to her in eighteen years what you're thinking about doing right now."
"I'd kill him."
"You'd have to be involved to know that, though. Right? I mean, you say that but why would you care if you have nothing to do with her? You walk away now she's not going to come back in a year or five years from now and say here, meet your kid."
"Probably not. She doesn't need anything from me."
"Well, not everyone needs things from people. Some people want things, though, like for someone to do the right thing when the situation calls for it."
"I'm still not so sure the right thing is me sticking around."
"And I still say the fact you're aware of the possibilities decreases the chance you'll allow yourself to get to the point you're worrying about. And, well, I guess if you can't do it then you could walk away, but at least you'd know you tried. Is that all you're worried about? That you'll be like your dad?"
"I'm not ready to be a dad."
"She's probably not ready to be a mom either, and no offense but she gets the all day, all night job. You just have to give her some money and spend a few hours with it. So I don't feel so sorry for you. You make fun of me and my inexperience yet my life isn't currently in upheaval because I couldn't keep it in my pants."
"Nice," John said.
"Why'd you come to me anyway?"
"I already told you, you're the smartest person I know."
"There are other smart kids at school."
"None who would talk to me, and none who wouldn't walk around school on Monday saying I lived up to my no-good reputation and knocked someone up."
Brian shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you. I don't envy you, either of you. I can try to help you get into a community college and stuff, but once you get there you have to do the work."
"I'm aware of that fact."
"Well, you need to make your decision, John."
"I kind of reacted badly when she told me."
"Yes, me. I'm not sure she'd talk to me anyway."
"When is she due?"
"I donít know!"
"Um," he said. He thought it over in his head. Nine months from that day. He couldn't tell Brian that, though, or he'd know the person they were talking about was Claire. "December? January? Maybe, I'm not sure. It's not like I asked her when exactly it happened."
"Well, you have time to get her to listen if you decide that's what you want."
"So these community colleges. My grades wouldn't matter?"
"It won't be easy, but you've got to have a couple of teachers who would give you a letter of recommendation."
"Yeah, real stellar teachers from auto shop and wood working."
"It's better than nothing. You work with your hands, there's nothing wrong with that. There's always construction going on in Chicago. You don't even need a degree to work construction. Welders make good money I've heard."
"You're not a bad guy, Brian," he said, laying money on the table to cover the tab.
He shrugged. "Did I help?"
"I don't know," John said. He didn't. Brian made it sound so simple when it wasn't. There was no saying Claire would even talk to John after what he'd said. He was still stuck in the same predicament he was in yesterday. He had nothing to offer her. He already had a job lined up for the summer working construction. It was the only thing he could find, but because of school he couldn't start until next week.
"Well, that's better than no I guess."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com