***Part Seven***
Word Count: 2,649

She hadn't seen either of John's parents in years. She guessed probably elementary school for his dad, possibly sixth grade for his mom.

She probably wouldn't recognize his father at all because she'd rarely ever seen him. His mom she'd seen enough when they were in elementary school to recognize her, though. She was at the Jewel, picking up some last minute things for her mom for Thanksgiving dinner. She had no idea why her brother couldn't have picked them up on his way.

John's mom was at the checkout aisle next to the one Claire was in, which happened to be the only two registers open in the Jewel.

"Hey Claire," the cashier said.

"Hi Heather," she said, so engrossed in seeing John's mom she hadn't been paying attention to the fact she knew her cashier. "Working on Thanksgiving, huh?"

"Yeah," Heather said.

"You still haven't heard from John?" Claire overheard the other cashier ask John's mom.

"No. I called the police to see if he'd been arrested a few months ago. He hadn't been."

"Where would he go, I wonder?"

"I don't know."

Claire glanced at them with a slight frown. Heather was a classmate of Claire's and judging by her expression knew who John was and what his parents had been like to him. She shrugged at Claire, ringing in the few items Claire had been sent to buy.

"They'd have contacted you if something had happened to him."

"Yes," his mom said.

So, she'd called the police looking for him back in June. And then what? She didn't have kids, but she could only imagine if her son or daughter was missing she wouldn’t stop looking for them until she had no more breath in her body.

"I just don't understand why he'd just leave. Not even a note so we'd know he was gone and not dead somewhere."

Claire wanted to feel sorry for the woman, who looked awful. Years of drinking and whatever else she'd done hadn't been kind to her. She was tempted for about a minute to speak up.

What stopped her?

She knew John didn't want them to know anything about him or his whereabouts. That wasn't what stopped her, though. Not entirely anyway.

While it had been a little over a month since he'd visited her at school, the image of what he looked like without his shirt on was fresh in her mind. It had been one of the worst things she'd seen in her life. He'd never said if his mom ever did anything to him, but she clearly had done nothing to help keep her son safe.

That was what stopped Claire from saying anything to reassure his mother that her son was all right.

"What time are you done?" Claire asked Heather.

"Two o'clock."

"That's not too bad."

"No, I'd just be at home pretending I care about football with my dad and brothers anyway."

"Oh," Claire said. Heather's mom was a nurse, so was probably working today, too.

"Well, I hope you have a good Thanksgiving. It was good to see you."

"You, too," Heather said.

"Thanks," Claire said, grabbing the paper grocery sack. She spotted John's mom in the parking lot, getting into an old Pinto that Claire recalled looking much nicer the last time she'd seen it. Since Jewel was pretty dead they were parked right next to each other.

She watched as discreetly as she could as she set the bag of groceries in the trunk. She was looking for something, anything, some sign that his mom was actually concerned at all about John. She still wouldn't say anything, but it'd make her feel a little better. She saw nothing to indicate that was the case, though. No tears, no discomfort after the conversation with the cashier who she obviously knew well enough to talk about John with.

She left glad John was very far away this Thanksgiving.

It was close to midnight when her phone rang, totally waking her up. She knew it was John before answering. No one else would call her this late. Midnight her time was only ten his time.

"Hi," she said.

'You all tired from plates full of turkey?'

"Yes."

'Good.'

"It was. Mom didn't skimp. My brother brought his girlfriend so she went the extra mile to impress the potential daughter-in-law."

'Well, that's good. Is she nice?'

"Yeah, she's all right. I've met her before, so has mom but it was her first holiday with us. How was your day?"

'The usual, though we did get something that resembled apple pie. It probably wasn't nearly as good as yours, though.'

"Well, maybe next year."

'Maybe. I've gone this long without it. I'm not suffering.'

Claire thought of his mom. Nothing she'd had in her basket seemed to be last minute items for Thanksgiving dinner. She'd noticed cigarettes, some cold cuts and bread, potato chips, and a box of cereal among other more everyday items.

"I saw your mom today," she said before she could think about whether to tell him.

'I'm sorry. You what?'

"I mean I didn't like talk to her or anything. I was at Jewel. Mom sent me to get some things and your mom was there, too."

'I see,' he said, sounding cautious.

"I didn't say anything to her, but the cashier she used asked about you."

'What did she say?'

"That she didn't know where you were. She'd called the police when you first left, I guess, but it doesn't sound as though she has since."

'That's something at least, I guess. Honestly, it's more than I gave either of them credit for doing.'

"I wasn't sure I should tell you."

'I don't really care. Why didn't you say something to her? You could have done a good deed and eased her mind that I was safe somewhere.'

"I don't owe her anything. If you wanted her to know that you were alive and well you'd have let them know by now. Besides, I closed my eyes and saw what they did to you."

'I should've kept my clothes on,' he said.

"No, you shouldn't have, John. I don't see that every time I think of you or anything."

'If you say so, I just don't like that's what you see when you picture me.'

"I don't usually. I swear. I think it was just seeing her, even if she never laid a hand on you she let that happen."

'Yeah, no mother-of-the-year awards were received at my house. And thank you.'

"For?"

'Not telling her. I'm sure it was tempting, even for a minute or two there. She can put on a good show when she wants to, believe me.'

"I thought about it for like two seconds."

'Like I said, I'm sure it was tempting. You wouldn't be human if it didn't cross your mind. Normal people would want to know, be assured their child was okay.'

"What do you do tomorrow?"

'Back to the field. We had pretty easy days yesterday and today.'

"Oh. So, no phone call Saturday morning?"

'No, sweetheart, I'm sorry.'

"There's no reason to apologize. You called today, that's more important anyway."

'I did get to draw today.'

"Oh?"

'Yeah, just the mess hall and some soldiers eating.'

"Well, that's good, though. How did it turn out?"

'Pretty good.'

"Good. That must mean they're thinking about you being an Illustrator and not something else, right?"

'I'd think so.'

"Well, that's good, right?"

'Yeah, it'd been a while since I'd been able to do anything but a quick sketch so it was nice. For once I didn't feel as though I was going to get in trouble for drawing on someone else's time.'

"Because they'd asked you to do it?"

'Right.'

"I'm glad."

'I'd still rather draw you.'

"Maybe."

'Maybe?'

"Yes."

'Well, that's better than the no I got before.'

"I didn't say how much of me."

'That's not nice. Why do I have to disrobe and you don't?'

"What can I say? Life's rough."

'Tell me about it.'

"I'm sorry."

'Me, too, but I'll take maybe.'

"Well, that's all you'd get for now anyway besides me saying that I liked seeing you without your shirt."

'Yeah?'

"Yes."

She yawned and he chuckled.

'Evidently not that much you didn't.'

"No, I did. I'm sorry. Mom woke me up to help her with the turkey."

'Teaching you the ins and outs of being domestic, huh?'

"Yes."

'I won't keep you, Princess.'

"No, I'm sorry."

'Nah, there's quite a line tonight.'

"I suppose. I'll talk to you next weekend then?"

'Count on it.'

"Okay. Happy Thanksgiving, John, I'm glad that you called."

'Me, too, and I'm glad you had a nice day.'

"Have a good week."

'Thanks. The sunblock you sent will get used.'

"Good," she said. She liked knowing she'd sent him useful things.

***

"Back to Saturday mornings," he said, though she didn't sound sleepy.

'I see that,' she said.

"You and your mom were pretty popular here last night."

'Oh?'

"You said you were going to send me some Christmas cookies. There were dozens in there, Claire. The Marines frown on overweight Marines. You know this, right?"

She laughed. 'Well, when I told my mom I wanted to send some cookies to someone she asked me who. When I told her about you,' she sighed. 'Well, she got a little carried away with baking. She got kind of mad at me I sent you so few the first time.'

"Well, there was more than enough to share with quite a few who don't get anything from anybody."

'I'm glad you're not one of those people.'

"Me, too, Princess, me, too."

'Good.'

"So your mom knows about me then?"

'Yes.'

"And?"

'And what?'

"Did she say anything or did you tell her everything?"

'I did and she didn't really say anything. She asked if she knew you that was about it.'

"Ah."

'She was sort of surprised I think.'

"Why?"

'I guess because I've never really had a boyfriend before. Not one that I've talked to her about. Certainly not one I've baked cookies for.'

'I see."

'She did say you could stay in my brother's old bedroom if you had to.'

"Really?"

'Your door would have to stay open.'

He chuckled at that. "I bet it would. She does realize I could just visit you at school or get a motel room there where you could visit me."

'Sure, but it's her house so her rules. You know?'

"Too bad, because once wasn't nearly enough."

'No, it wasn't. My bed in my dorm isn't nearly big enough, though.'

"I'm glad you think so."

'Me, too.'

"How were classes?"

'Fine.'

"Yeah? Finals are coming up, right?"

'Yes.'

"You're going to ace them all, right?"

'I'm going to try.'

"Good."

'So, when should I stop writing?'

"Probably when you leave for Christmas break."

'Okay.'

"At least the next address should be permanent. Well, as permanent as it can get in the Marines anyway."

'I like that idea.'

"Me, too."

'So, you shared the cookies.'

"Yes."

'Good. That was what Mom and I figured you'd do.'

"I sent you something today."

'Oh?'

"Yes. It's kind of a Christmas present."

'It's a little early,' she said. She couldn't ignore the giddy feeling she felt in her stomach that he called something he sent her a Christmas present. He couldn't send her packages so it had to be something that fit in a standard envelope.

"I wanted to be sure you got it."

'Well, thank you.'

"You don't even know what it is yet."

'You sent it so I don't need to know what it is to know I'll like it.'

"Well, hopefully next Saturday you'll have gotten it and you can tell me what you think."

'I'll let you know, you know I will.'

"So what's planned for today?"

'Nothing really. Laundry.'

"No parties?"

'Later.'

"With guys who don't know you have a boyfriend?"

'Some.'

"Be sure to fix that."

She laughed. 'I'll get right on that.'

"I need to fix that."

'Huh?'

"Nothing. Just tired and babbling, I guess. It was a long week."

'Well, I'm glad the cookies helped.'

"They did. You delivering them would be nicer."

'Well, when you know where you're going, tell me and I'll see about bringing cookies with me.'

"You'll be the first to know, I promise."

'Hmm. You're sure you won't let James know first?"

'Well, I could, but him hand-delivering cookies has never entered my mind."

'Good to know.'

He chuckled.

"You don't need to bring me cookies, you know. I have no intention of doing much of anything I can say over the phone the first time I see you."

'There are things you want to do you can't say over the phone?'

"Yes."

'You could say them in a letter. No one reads my mail.'

"I'll see what I can do."

Neither of them had gotten to the point of writing anything very suggestive in their letters. Maybe that would change or maybe neither of them was that comfortable writing things like that. He wasn't sure. He sure wouldn't mind getting a letter like that from her.

'So another couple of phone calls?'

"Yup."

'Will you be glad to be done with school?'

"Yes. I'm ready to get this life started. I wasn't sure, you know. I felt like the cop had me over a barrel, but now that I'm here, doing this stuff."

'You're good at it?'

"Yeah, and I kind of like it. You know? I feel like I'm doing something. Even if I never see combat I'm still here, willing to do that if need be."

'I understand. And I'm ready for you to get this life started, too.'

"You just like knowing I'll be in the middle of nowhere for the next four years."

'You think you will be?'

"I don't know. We'll see."

'No Japan?'

"Very unlikely, so is Hawaii."

'Hawaii would be nice.'

"Right? Though it's pretty costly I've heard, even on-base."

'I suppose.'

"Okay, Princess. I have to hang up."

'I know.'

"I'm sorry."

'You have nothing to be sorry for. Go learn how to be a Marine.'

"It seems I'm working on how to be a boyfriend and a Marine at the same time. I'm not sure which is more difficult."

'You're fine on the boyfriend front.'

"Well, good. I can sleep easier knowing I'm doing that right at least."

'You're not sure about the Marine part?'

"No, I am. I'm pretty good at it as it turns out. I guess discipline, this kind of it anyway, and I work well together."

'I'm so glad.'

"Me, too, because I was fresh out of ideas if this didn't work."

'It sounds like you were willing to let it work, that has to have helped.'

"Yeah, my recruiter said the same thing."

'Thanks for calling.'

"I'll talk to you soon."

'I wish you could sleep with the bear.'

"Why?" he asked.

'Because I'd kind of like to have a night with you again and at least something I'd sent you would be sleeping with you.'

"I'll try not to make you wait too much longer and I promise it'll be more than one night this time. No roommates."

'Okay.'

"Yeah?"

'Yes.'

"I'll work on it as soon as I can then."

He hung up first as he usually did, feeling pretty good about the conversation overall. He wasn't sure as one month turned into weeks and almost two months if she'd get tired of the distance. She didn't seem to be so far, though he imagined that could change yet. He just hoped she truly understood leave time wasn't up to him so things like Thanksgiving and stuff weren't up to him. Yes, most of the time days off for holidays were given, but not travel time or anything.

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