***Part Six***
Word Count: 4,765

John was more than a little surprised to find he had a box waiting for him when he checked for mail. His first thought when his friend Tim had told him about a box for him was that James' mom had sent him something. It seemed the kind of thing she'd do. He'd hoped it was James' mom and not his sister at any rate. She'd written to him a couple more times since the initial letter. She never said much and he had to admit it was nice to get mail addressed to him. He had to assume James talked to her and she was either ignoring her brother or was just writing to be nice. It was possible. If one of James' brothers wrote to him he wouldn't look at it as closely so he supposed he shouldn't worry about it too much.

Dear John,

I hope everything's okay. I'm sorry I wasn't in my room on Saturday if you called. I meant to be, I swear, I even set my alarm clock so I'd be more awake this time. One of the girls on my floor needed a ride to the hospital. She broke her ankle, I'm not really sure how but I was the only one awake with a car to take her. She's on crutches now, so she's going to have fun getting around campus. She has a boyfriend here on campus that can help her carry her backpack; I guess that's something at least.

I had to take her to get a prescription filled for pain killers. While she was waiting for it to be filled, well, I started thinking about you. Why I was thinking about you in the middle of a drug store, I'm really not sure. Regardless, it gave me an idea. The idea led to the box this letter is included in. I know you mentioned you'd bought a radio. I assume you meant like a Walkman not a boom box, so I hope the batteries are the right size. If they're not, well, I guess maybe you'll find someone there with you who has something they'll fit. I know you don't have a lot of free time, but you must have some before bed so hopefully the magazines I picked out will be something you want to read. I have no idea if you like sports, but I know you like music and stuff so I'm pretty sure you'll like Rolling Stone at least. The Sports Illustrated and Time were just in case you were really bored. Give me some ideas for next time?

(Please don't tell me there shouldn't be a next time either, that's not an acceptable answer! Next time I'll send you magazines *I'd* read so unless you want Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Vogue you'd better give me your own (better) ideas.)

Yes, I actually baked the cookies myself so don't make fun of them if you can only use them for target practice. After buying most of the stuff in the box (yes, I went out a second time to buy a few other things) and bringing Emily back to my dorm I went to the sorority house where they have an actual kitchen. There's one on my floor, but it's not very big and I don't have dishes. So, if they're terrible, I apologize. I'm not much of a baker I guess. At least they're not burnt. I didn't want to send too many, but tell me if you like the chocolate chip ones or the peanut butter ones better. Or if there's another kind you like better, tell me that, too. Someone recommended I put them in a plastic bag to help them keep better, so I hope that works. They're my way of giving you some piece of Thanksgiving I guess. (I'm not sure what cookies have to do with Thanksgiving, other than I baked them myself and Thanksgiving is about home-cooked food.)

I know you're there for only like another month, but if there's something else you want me to send you just let me know. I'm happy to do it. If there are things in the box that you like better than others let me know that, too. (And please don't get mad at me about spending money, I liked doing it. It was kind of fun.)

Not talking to you last weekend got me thinking, though. Who would they even contact if something happened to you? I hope not your parents. I suppose that's a bad question to ask. Right? I'm supposed to talk about positive things, but if I don't write it down I'll forget and I was sort of curious. I'm sure it'll never be an issue, but it just made me wonder.

I hope you don't get made fun of about the stuffed bear. I figured since it was a Chicago Bears bear that would be better than a plain bear in the eyes of other guys. (Amy thinks Jim McMahon is cute, I'm not entirely sure I agree.) I slept with it for a few nights; hopefully it'll smell like my perfume like your shirt did for me for a while. So, hopefully you weren't lying about liking it! (The perfume I mean.)

She talked about her plans to head home for Thanksgiving next week and a few other things. He'd told her in his second letter not to bother trying to come out to see him for his school graduation. He assumed incorrectly he'd have a day or two in between graduation and heading to his first duty station. He would be lucky, he'd been told, if he had a night. He was glad when he talked to her the next time that she hadn't made any arrangements. He would've felt pretty bad if she had and he wouldn't be able to spend time with her. Then, he supposed, if her parents had bought her a plane ticket she could have changed it for a visit when he was out of school.

He picked through the box after he'd finished reading the letter. There was quite a bit of stuff. He wondered just how much time she'd had at the drug store – and which stuff she'd bought initially. A deck of cards, a Frisbee, a hacky sack (which he was absolutely no good at but a couple other guys were so he'd probably give it to one of them), a couple of packages of beef jerky, mixed nuts, sunflower seeds, a few packages of Pop Tarts, some hard candy, some mints, a book of crossword puzzles, Chapstick, sunblock, eye drops, foot powder (best thing ever! How could she possibly have thought of that?), nasal spray, socks (another pretty good idea), boot laces, and a couple of bandanas. There was also a paperback book in the box. That was in addition to the cookies, magazines, and batteries. He wasn't a sports fan, but he'd read the magazine and pass it on to someone else, the same with the other magazines actually. He wasn't a crossword puzzle person, but it was better than having nothing to do so that he'd keep.

He regarded the bear she'd mentioned. It wasn't very big as stuffed animals went, which was a good thing. He couldn't keep it on his bed or anything, but he'd fit in his foot locker just fine. He was very grateful he wasn't the only person who'd received a stuffed animal from someone or he would have felt pretty ridiculous.

"Thought you didn't have anyone?" Tim asked.

John shrugged. "It's sort of complicated."

He chuckled. "When isn't it for guys like us? Long distance relationships suck in general, but throw in the inability to communicate regularly."

"I suppose," John said. "You're married, though. She gets it, right?"

"Well, sure."

Tim was one of the ones who did get married before heading off to the boot camp portion of their training. John had liked Tim when they were in San Diego together and he liked him here at school even more. There was more than one newly married soldier who did things with their weekend liberty time John was pretty sure their wife wouldn't approve of. He didn't quite understand that way of thinking. If you were going to sleep around why get married? It made no sense to him. He supposed the guys were thinking the wife would be faithful and they could do whatever they wanted. He knew one guy whose girlfriend gave him the ultimatum of marriage or breaking up so he'd chosen marriage. He wasn't too happy with the decision currently because his wife got pregnant right away. He hadn't been counting on that happening before the ink was dry on their marriage certificate.

Tim, though, he seemed to like his wife and being married to her. Not to say he didn't look. John wasn't blind either. Looking wasn't bad. At least he didn't think so. He supposed Tim's wife might think differently on the subject, but looking didn't hurt anything. Some of the women they ran across obviously wanted to get looked at so John never felt as though he was doing anything inappropriate. (Some very obviously wanted more than to just get looked at, too, and they very rarely left alone just in the few times John had gone out when he'd had the chance to.)

John opened one of the plastic baggies that had cookies in it and took a bite of one, shaking his head slightly. She severely underestimated her baking ability. They weren't bad at all, but then he hadn't had homemade cookies in … Well, he couldn't remember the last time. Baking wasn't something his mom ever did that he could remember; neither was cooking for that matter. If it didn't come out of a can or a box from the freezer or a cupboard it pretty much exceeded anything his mom ever did in the kitchen.

"I thought you were from Chicago."

"I am."

"Why is this from Indiana?"

"She goes to school there."

"Ah. Lafayette. That's Purdue, right? The Boilermakers?"

"Uh, yeah, Purdue. Is that what they are? I have no idea. They named their college mascot after a drink?"

Tim chuckled, taking the cookie John offered him. "No. If I remember correctly it was something to do with heating and molding medal. Like a blacksmith. It's a pretty old school, going back to the eighteen hundreds. I doubt the name would come about today."

"Oh, that makes much more sense," John said, glad Tim didn't think he was an idiot for not knowing that. How the fuck would he know what a boilermaker was?

"Does she have a name?"

"She does," John said, taking another bite of his cookie. "Claire."

"And how complicated are we talking?"

"Uh, well," he said, figuring why not. There was nothing embarrassing about the story really. So, he told Tim, knowing chances were it would get told to someone else and so on. It was the way things worked around here. He was used to it.

"So, just not sure yet?"

"Not really, no. I wasn't counting on seeing her when I was there on leave."

"Word of advice?"

"Sure," John said, finishing his cookie.

"At least establish whether she's committed to you."

"You think she'd send me this box if she wasn't?"

"I think women are complicated and she's at college in a sorority where there are parties every weekend. Hell, every night probably if they're anything like the fraternity my brother was in. I think she likes you and wants you to know she likes you, but women need something more. You said she's pretty. You're not going to be the only guy interested if that's the case. You know?"

"I'm not going to marry her."

Tim chuckled.

"I wasn't suggesting marrying her, no. I'd been dating Mandy since freshman year of high school so it's a little different for us. You certainly could tell her you'd like her to be your girlfriend."

Girlfriend. John had never had one of those. Not the way Tim was talking about it at least.

"And that's going to stop her from finding someone else closer to her?"

"Well, if that's what she wants from you, yes. If it's not, well, then I guess you'll know."

John fastened the baggie closed, setting it on his bunk. He'd have to put everything she'd sent into his foot locker, but the baggie of cookies he was leaving out for now. He wondered if she knew someone at school who had a reason to send packages like this, because everything that was food she'd put in a Ziploc baggie probably so it would stay fresher.

"You going to call her tonight?"

"I was thinking about it, but it'll be kind of late for her when I get to."

"I'd be thinking pretty hard about it late or not if someone it was complicated with sent me this stuff."

"She sent me foot powder," John said, holding up the bottle of the stuff. "And Chapstick."

"Better keep that under lock and key."

John chuckled. "I have no idea how she'd even know to send it. Or socks and boot laces."

"Well, obviously she's thought of you here. Maybe she's asked around. And, Clive Cussler, by the way, is a pretty good author."

"I don't know that I've ever heard of him."

"My dad reads him otherwise I probably wouldn't have. So, what will you do if she says yes?"

"Have a girlfriend I guess and a reason to go back home."

Tim glanced at John pretty steadily for a few minutes. His eyes swept lower to John's legs. He shook his head a little and then glanced toward the floor where the box was currently sitting. John knew what Tim was thinking about, that John had enlisted to avoid going back home.

"Not many reasons to do that otherwise I assume?"

"Nope, not one. I mean a couple of friends, but not many that don't do things I shouldn't be around."

"Well, maybe you could time your leaves with her breaks and you could do things away from Chicago. If you're stationed somewhere warm, which we both know our choices as far as Infantry goes are going to be North Carolina or California, she may enjoy getting away during the winter."

"I'm not going to let my past dictate what I do."

"Nor should you. I'm just saying you're from the same town. I don't see letters coming from Mom or Dad, so I assume that means both are out of the picture."

"Yes," John said, trying not to sound defensive.

"I don't know how big your town is, but if you go to see her what are the odds you'll never run into either them or someone they know?"

"I know," he said.

He'd thought of that, of course. It was the reason he hadn't done too much away from James' house the time he was there. He'd gone to the couple things to do with school and had dinner with Sheila, but they'd gone somewhere downtown his parents would never have set foot in. Other than that he'd stayed put for the most part.

"I'll let you get that stuff put away. Thanks for the cookie."

"Sure."

It was after eight o'clock when he got the chance to use the telephone. He didn't usually try to call her during the week for that reason. Eight o'clock was eleven o'clock her time and he tried to be mindful she had classes in the morning even if she was up studying or doing whatever late. He didn't want to be the reason she was up late. However, for whatever reason there weren't huge lines for the phones tonight so he figured he'd take the chance.

'Hello.'

"You sound more awake today," he said.

'That's because I am typically more awake at this time. Nine in the morning on Saturdays is really early, John.'

He chuckled. "It's six in the morning here."

'Yeah, well, I'm a college student!'

"So you are, Princess."

'Is everything okay?'

"Everything's fine. Why?"

'Well, you've never called during the week before.'

"I've never gotten a package before."

'Oh,' she said.

"Thank you very much."

'You liked it?'

"Well, that's a pretty silly question, but yes. The cookies were very good by the way."

'Yeah? You're not just saying that?'

"No, if they were awful why would I want to lie and risk you sending more?"

She laughed. 'Good point.'

"You shouldn't have sent all of that stuff, Princess. Really. Just the magazines would have been more than enough."

'Well, I felt like it.'

"I appreciate it, don't get me wrong. I mean, you thought of some pretty cool stuff. How did you think of it anyway?"

'Which stuff?'

"Socks. Boot laces. Foot powder. Chapstick. Eye drops. All of which I can buy, you know?"

'I know you can, but I figured it's a few less you have to spend your money on. And the food I thought of myself. There's a girl in my sorority who has a boyfriend in the Army. He's overseas, I can't remember where. Anyway, she gave me some ideas.'

"Well, tell her they were good ideas."

'I will. So, the cookies were okay?'

"I told you they were good. I only tried the peanut butter ones so far."

'So, you like peanut butter better than chocolate chip?'

"I guess," he shrugged. "I don't know really. I'd like whatever you feel like baking. I've never had someone bake for me before."

'I'll do a lot of baking with my mom when I'm home for Thanksgiving. I'll send you some Christmas cookies.'

"Your mom would be okay with that?"

'Sure, why not?'

"I don't know."

'They're just cookies.'

"I know, but they're for a guy."

'I can send cookies to you, John. She may ask who you are or something.'

"About that."

'Yeah?'

"I was kind of thinking." He had no idea how to phrase such a thing, especially over the phone.

'You don't want me to send you anymore?'

"What? No, I do. I just," he shrugged, glancing to see who was around who might be listening in. The nice thing about the phone area, everyone was always pretty focused on their own conversation because they were so limited on time that people weren't prone to eavesdropping. "I was thinking I don't think I'd like it if you did for anyone else."

'Did what?' she asked.

"You know, um, baked cookies for them."

'Well, I don't think that's a problem. I don't have anyone else to bake cookies for.'

"I was just thinking, you know, I asked before if we'd even gotten to a certain point."

'I remember,' she said. "You kissed me before I could answer you.'

"You had an answer?"

'That day? No, I wouldn't have known how to answer.'

"Does that mean you have an answer now?"

She gave a soft laugh and he smiled at that. 'I think so.'

"You think so, Princess?"

'Well, if you're saying what I think you are I told someone I had a boyfriend on Saturday.'

"You did?"

'Yes,' she said softly. 'I figured even if it wasn't true, he'd never know. I mean, it's not like you're going to get here anytime soon and say you're not.'

"He?"

'Yes.'

"I see. Well, I can't say I'm upset he thinks that."

'You're not?'

"No, you can tell whoever you want that."

'I could be very mean right now.'

"Mean?"

'Yes.'

"How?"

'I could say I'm not ready for one guy.'

"If you're not, Claire, I'm not trying to make you. I just figured," he sighed a bit. "I liked getting the package and I liked the idea of telling people who asked who sent it that it was from my girlfriend. And I really hate the idea of calling you some Saturday or Sunday morning and hearing a guy answer your phone."

'No guy is going to answer my phone. The teddy bear is why, isn't it?'

"No, the sender of the package is why. The bear is cute, by the way. I can't sleep with him."

'I know.'

"I'd rather it be you anyway then just something that smells like you."

'Me, too. You still don’t know when you'll get leave?'

"No, it'll depend on whoever is in charge when I get to where I'll be stationed. But you know, a friend here mentioned chances are I'll end up staying in California or possibly be sent to North Carolina, both have better weather in the winter than Indiana. Hawaii is a very remote possibility, but I guess it happens once in a while. I'm not counting on that, though. So, maybe for spring break or Easter you'd be interested in coming to see me if I can arrange to get a weekend of leave time."

'You talked about me?'

"He asked about the package."

'I see.'

"I don’t talk a whole lot, Princess, don't take it personally. I'm really trying to focus on my work. You know? They know I write letters to someone and everything I've just never been upfront about who I'm writing to."

'I understand.'

"So, was that a yes?"

"To visiting you?"

"Well, that, too, but the other question."

'To whether I'll only send you cookies?'

"Yeah, that."

'That's a yes.'

"Good to know."

'Does that affect your plans this weekend?'

"No, I've been a good boy every weekend."

'Me, too," she said.

"That's good to know because, well, have I mentioned I'm very good at my job, Princess?"

'Shooting guns?'

"Yes."

She laughed. 'You won't have to shoot anyone. I promise.'

"Thank you."

'How do you feel?'

"What?"

'Well, I know this wasn't an easy conversation for you to even think about. I'm kind of surprised we're even having it and you didn't just presume.'

"I feel fine. I mean, we were getting to this point in the spring we just had a bit of a delay in getting here. I think if I was able to see you steadier that I may have just presumed."

'True.'

"So, I'm good with it. I admit I wonder if you're thinking straight, but that's just the hint of my parents left in my brain telling me I'm not good enough."

'John,' she said softly.

"Yeah?"

'I like you. That's good enough for me.'

"I like you, too. So, what did you tell the guy about me?"

'You know, just the basics for him to leave me alone.'

"And you want to be left alone? Or just from him?"

'John, I just said I want to be your girlfriend. Would I do that if I wanted anyone else?'

"There are probably guys there you haven't met yet."

'I imagine there are, yeah, but I still won't like them.'

"I know the feeling. All right, I won't mention it again."

'Being my boyfriend?'

"Uh no, you can mention that anytime you want to. I mean not wanting me to be that."

'Are you going to be able to call this weekend still?'

"I should. How's your friend?"

'She's all right. She'll be on crutches for like six more weeks.'

"I'm glad it was her and not you."

'Why?'

"Because I like your parts just the way they are, not broken or hurt."

She sighed softly. 'And I'm glad you're in a position that I don't have to worry about that with you anymore.'

"Yeah, well, like you said before I'm a guy. Guys aren't supposed to be pretty. You are supposed to be so don't do anything to change that."

'I'll do my best.'

"So, yeah, I'll try and call this weekend."

'If not, next weekend I'll be home.'

"Right. I have the letter you sent. Should I not call you Saturday morning then?"

'You can call whenever you want. I don't know how much I'll be home in the evenings, but I'll be home that Saturday morning for sure.'

"Try not to have too much fun, Princess."

'I'm sorry you can't come over for dinner on Thanksgiving.'

"Maybe next year."

'Yeah? Really? You'd do that?'

He shrugged. "Sure. Why not? I've always been curious why the day meant anything to anyone. It'd be nice to find out."

'Well, it's a date then, whenever you can get here for Thanksgiving whether it's next year or the next one.'

"I'll hold you to that."

She sighed again. 'I hate this part of the conversation.'

"Why?"

'Because I know you have to go and I feel like we haven't really said anything.'

"I think we said some pretty important stuff tonight."

'We did.'

"Well then, I'd say we said something."

'I guess. I just hate hanging up because every time we do I always think of something I should've told you.'

"Write it down."

'I do, but you must be sick of letters that start with I forgot to say this.'

"Trust me when I say I will never get sick of letters from you. Ever. No matter what they say."

'You just say that because I'm legal.'

He chuckled softly. He'd told Claire about Samantha writing to him. He certainly had nothing to hide, but it seemed to him if he withheld that information it would seem as though he did. "That's right, that's the only reason."

'I knew it.'

"You caught me."

'I knew it.' She laughed softly. 'She's probably going to egg my car if you stay at James' again and I pick you up.'

"Nah, I don't think she's mean or anything and I've come to the conclusion if it was one of his brothers writing me I wouldn't look too closely at their reasons."

'Well, sure, because they're… Oh,' she said.

"Right? That was the same thing I realized. Maybe she's bored and just trying to be nice. I mean, James doesn't write me two-three page letters so maybe she just figures – correctly – that I'd enjoy reading anything."

'As long as she's not writing things that'll make you blush.'

He chuckled. "I'm pretty sure she doesn't even know about what would make me blush yet."

'If she's writing you letters she knows.'

"You think so?"

'Yes.'

"Hmm," he said. "I guess I shouldn't send the letter I just finished writing her then."

'Very funny. You already told me you haven't written her back.'

He chuckled. "I know and I have no plans on starting. Whatever her reasons I'm not going to encourage anything. That's the last thing I need."

'My parents might let you stay at our house.'

"What?"

'You're worried that her writing you will make James' mom disinvite you the next time you come into town.'

"More or less. I mean, I don't know how normal parents operate, but even I know that could make his mom think twice about it."

'Hopefully, she knows you well enough to know you wouldn't do anything. I'm saying, though, that my parents would probably let you stay at our house. I'd have to ask and I'd probably have to explain why staying at your own house isn't an option, but I can't imagine my dad saying no.'

"Your dad. What about your mom?"

'She'd probably say no, but I'd just talk to my dad and he'd change her mind for me.'

"I see. Well, it's something to consider if that happens. I told James so that's really all I can do. I mean, she never did anything inappropriate."

'Well, that's good because that's my job.'

"Yeah?"

'I wish I could pretend you weren't standing with a bunch of other Marines around you.'

"And I wish I could pretend that I didn't know your phone wasn't across the room from your bed."

'The phone cord stretches so I can sit on my bed while talking.'

"Well, that's something to think about for another time."

'That time?'

"Yes," he said. "Sweet dreams."

'I think I'll have some good ones tonight, yeah.'

"Me, too."

'You should call at night again.'

"I hate risking waking you up."

'I know, but this way I can hang up from talking to you and go to sleep with your voice fresh in my mind.'

"And that's good?"

'Yes.'

"I'll try."

'Okay. Good night, John, I'm glad you called and that you got the package.'

"Thanks again for everything. You didn't have to."

'Yeah, well, I wanted to.'

He hung up first as he always did. He wasn't sure why she always waited, but he always felt as though he was cutting her off hanging up first.

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