Make Yourself At Home
(Sequel to "When Johnny Met Joanne")
It was horribly awkward at first. Although he had been taught to get in and out of the wheelchair, and was told he was very good at it, the therapists hadn’t expected his first attempts out-with the hospital environment to be subject to the scrutiny of two small children, one three and one five. They watched in open mouthed glee as Uncle Johnny had to get Daddy’s help to get out of the back seat of Mummy’s station wagon and into his wheelchair. It was not the easiest of maneuvers with one leg in a cast to your hip and the other in a cast to the knee and one arm in a sling.
As John Gage found a ragged smile for the children, they suddenly decided that this strange man in a wheelchair was not the Uncle Johnny they had expected their father to bring home. The Uncle Johnny they were familiar with played games with them in the backyard, literally rolling about the ground with them. The children turned tail and fled.
Dismayed, Johnny turned his head and looked up at his partner, Roy DeSoto. “What did I do?” he asked. He was already feeling nervous about this visit and had hoped the kids would smooth over the first few minutes.
“Nothing, don’t worry,” Roy smiled. “They’ll come round. They were the same with Joanne the first time they saw her on the crutches.” He pushed his friend inside.
His hostess, Joanne, came to meet him, pegging along gamely on her crutches. She bent over to kiss his cheek and nearly ended up on his lap! “Oops!” she said brightly. “I do that all the time. It’s like I’m drunk.” She giggled. “Come into the kitchen, dinner will be ready in a minute. Roy, put Johnny’s bag in Chris’s room.” She turned and staggered her way back into the kitchen.
“I think she might be a bit tipsy,” Roy whispered, leaning over the chair so the kids didn’t hear. “Let’s hope she doesn’t break anything else!”
It was all rather surreal. Roy parked Johnny in the kitchen and he sat there feeling like he was on display. The kids were now eyeing him in what they fondly thought was a covert manner (had they had the vocabulary to know the word) but that just made it even more obvious that they thought a Martian had landed – and in their house no less!
Fortunately, Roy was soon back and placed the dishes on the table. Johnny was parked at the side of the table at one end, which meant that Roy had to dance around him every time he got up for something. Joanne said a quick grace and although Johnny had never really had much to do with the white man’s religion, he thought it sounded a bit weird. Perhaps Joanne had had a drink.
By this point in his recovery, Johnny was allowed to use his left arm to eat, which was a relief, as the kids kept their eyes glued to his face the whole time. Quite how anything got into their mouths he wasn’t too sure. Jenny’s face was rather brightly colored by the time they were finished eating. He remembered his manners this time and didn’t talk with his mouth full.
Clearing up only took a little while with Johnny and Joanne handing Roy the dirty dishes and he stacked them in the dishwasher. Then he took the children off to be bathed and changed for bed and Johnny and Joanne were left alone.
This was the first time they had been alone together since the accident. Johnny did not have a clue what to say. Joanne looked just as uncomfortable. “Guess I should have got you some flowers,” he finally mumbled.
“Anything but lilies,” Joanne retorted before she thought and clapped a hand over her mouth.
Johnny looked at her in astonishment. “You mean I bought you flowers that you don’t like?” he asked.
“I hate them,” Joanne replied after a momentary hesitation. “I love other flowers, but lilies give me a headache.”
“Oh no!” Johnny groaned. “The florist told me ladies really like lilies.” He met her eyes and they looked at each other. The suspicion of a smile played over Joanne’s lips.
“The florist was lying,” Joanne informed him. “Most women would rather have roses, or carnations or freesias. Something with a more subtle scent.”
“They cost a fortune, too,” Johnny lamented. “And you got rid of them.”
At that, Joanne laughed aloud. “Chet is right, you are cheap,” she jibed and then froze. After all, she didn’t know Johnny that well and he might be offended by her teasing.
“I prefer to think of myself as frugal,” Johnny replied and laughed. With relief, Joanne joined in. “I’ll admit it,” Johnny went on, “I was trying to buy your favor.” He sighed. “What did you do with them?”
“I gave them to Mrs. Hammer,” Joanne replied. “She saw them in the utility room and admired them. It seemed the perfect chance to do us both a favor, so I gave them to her. She was delighted.”
“I’m glad they didn’t go to waste,” Johnny commented, making a mental note of the flowers Joanne had mentioned so he would get it right the next time. “But I still think I should have brought you something.”
“Another time, maybe,” Joanne replied carelessly. “At the moment, we’re still in your debt.”
“Hardly,” Johnny retorted. “Letting me stay with you is more than paying any debt due. Have you any idea how annoying it is going to be trying to get around me on your crutches?”
“Are you aware of how wearying it is to have two small children under your feet all day?” Joanne countered.
“Well, no,” Johnny admitted, thinking that parents always said things like that. But if kids were that bad, the human race would have died out years ago. He suspected it was all a ploy to garner sympathy for the poor beleaguered parents.
How little he knew.
“Um... Roy?” Johnny hated to bother his friend, who had got the children bathed and off to bed and was now having a seat.
“Yeah?” Roy looked over.
“I ... uh ... I ... need to ... you know,” Johnny mumbled, his face flaming.
For a long moment, Roy simply looked at him, as though he had no idea what Johnny was talking about. He hadn’t; but his partner’s flaming face gave him the clue and he managed to get to his feet without groaning. “Oh, right,” he agreed. He released the brake on the wheelchair and pushed it down the hall to the bathroom.
The DeSoto bathroom was a generous size, but it wouldn’t accommodate a wheelchair. The commode, luckily, was just inside the door, but Johnny was going to have to pull himself off the chair and onto the commode and then negotiate his clothing. It wouldn’t be easy. In fact, it was going to be utterly humiliating and Johnny could feel the color mounting in his face as Roy helped him in his usual matter-of-fact manner. Johnny wondered how on earth he would get to the toilet when Roy was not at home. Joanne would hardly be able to push him and even if Jenny was, would Johnny trust a three year old to push his wheelchair? Hardly!
Once settled back in the chair, Johnny wondered how he was going to bring this delicate subject up. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing one dropped into polite after dinner conversation! Roy squatted down beside him, his own cheeks flaming as much as Johnny’s. “I know it’s not ideal,” he whispered. “But there are bottles for when I’m not at home.”
“Uh, thanks,” Johnny choked out. Roy was right, it was very far from ideal. Johnny had hoped that part of things had been put behind him when he left the hospital. Now, he was thinking that perhaps he should have just gone to the rehab place and been in debt for years. At this rate, he was going to blush himself to death.
Why did he agree to this?
The next joy came with being put to bed. It didn’t matter that they were quiet, the moving about and the light going on disturbed Chris and he watched and made ‘helpful’ comments as Roy lifted Johnny’s legs onto the bed. “Daddy, why is Uncle Johnny wearing his clothes to bed?” he asked. “I’m not allowed to.”
“I’ll explain tomorrow,” Roy panted, as Johnny flopped back onto the pillows and tried to suppress a groan. “Go to sleep.”
“Daddy, couldn’t Uncle Johnny sleep in the wheelchair?”
“Christopher, go to sleep!” Roy ordered. “It’s very late.”
“Daddy!” An indignant small voice. Roy turned around ready to scold his son again, but softened when he saw the object in his hand. “You didn’t bring Uncle Johnny’s teddy bear!” Chris chided his parent, quite distressed by this oversight. “He can borrow Panda.” Chris gave Panda a kiss and passed him to Roy to give to Johnny.
Completely bemused, Johnny didn’t say a single word as Roy solemnly tucked the panda in beside him. Roy was slowly turning puce in an effort not to shriek with laughter. He went over to give Chris as kiss and moved to turn out the light.
“Daddy! You haven’t kissed Uncle Johnny good night,” Chris objected. Really, didn’t his father have any idea how things were meant to be?!
“Good night, Christopher!” Roy snapped and left, closing the door behind him. Johnny could hear him laughing out in the hall.
There were rustling sounds from the other bed and Johnny heard the sound of small feet coming over to him. What now? He opened his eyes and in the dim light saw Chris hovering over him. The child kissed his cheek, making a delicious raspberry noise. “Good night, Uncle Johnny,” he said sweetly. “Panda’ll look after you if you get scared.”
Touched, Johnny croaked, “Good night, Chris.”
Chris’s breathing soon settled back into a rhythmic pattern and Johnny lay and listened to it. So this was what it felt like to have a family.
It was all rather rushed in the morning. The kids got up and Chris got ready for kindergarten. Joanne made breakfast and Roy helped Johnny out of bed and into the bathroom. Being up this time, the kids wanted to go along to see the proceedings and didn’t take it too kindly when Roy shooed them away. He would wash later on from a basin on his knees in the kitchen. Roy wheeled him to the table, grabbed some breakfast to go and shot out the door so that he wouldn’t be late for work. Chris left for kindergarten some time later, driven by one of the other mothers. “Roy carpools when he can,” Joanne explained.
Before long, Johnny had been fed and Joanne steered him the few feet over to the sink and gave him some hot water to wash in. Without even thinking about it, she handed him the soap and washcloth and when he came to do his hair, she produced a measuring jug and indicated she would help.
They hadn’t counted on Jenny wanting to help too. She ran to her room and got the cream jug from her little plastic tea set and used that to help rinse Johnny’s hair. She also rinsed the floor, her clothes, his clothes and most of Joanne’s clothes while she was at it. The kitchen was swimming.
With a resigned sigh, Joanne hopped along using the kitchen counter for support and grabbed the mop out of the cupboard. She tidied up the floor as best she could, put the mop back and then started to crutch over the floor, ushering Jenny before her to dress the little girl in clean, dry clothes. Johnny eyed her progress worriedly. The floor was bound to be a bit slippery.
“I’ll bring you some dry clothes, too,” Joanne promised, and returned fairly soon with Jenny carrying Johnny’s clothes.
The little girl watched with great interest as Johnny stripped off his t-shirt and carefully eased his bad shoulder into a dry one. He left the sling hanging from his neck as he twisted and squirmed and finally managed to ease his sweatpants down without removing his boxers, too.
“Your panties are different to mine,” Jenny noted. “Mommy can fix that hole,” she went on, pointing to the fly at the front.
“That hole is meant to be there,” Joanne replied calmly. “It’s for Uncle Johnny’s willy, just like the hole in Chris’s underpants is for his willy.”
Why wasn’t the ground opening up and swallowing him alive? Stunned by the conversation, Johnny just sat there, his sweatpants around his knees, feeling his vital organs shrinking with humiliation and embarrassment. It was his first introduction to the joys of explaining the world to a three year old. It wouldn’t be the last.
It had never really occurred to Johnny that a household of four people would naturally create more washing than a single man. He watched in wonderment as Joanne loaded the washer with children-sized clothes and then smoothly transferred them to the dryer before starting over again with adult-sized clothes. He was mortified to see his own clothing in there. “I’ll wash my own clothes, Joanne,” he protested, feeling guilty.
“No need,” Joanne told him airily. “I’ve already done it. That wasn’t a full load, anyway.” She dumped a load of warm clothing onto his lap and took some more for herself. “Start folding.”
It was clear that what Johnny considered folded, Joanne didn’t necessarily agree. He watched closely and learned quickly. He didn’t bother too much about the neatness of his folding. His uniforms went to the dry cleaners and came back to him pressed and ready. His one dress shirt hung in the wardrobe at his apartment, but he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times it had graced his back. As a general rule, he wore t-shirts and plaid shirts and if they were a bit creased when he took them out of the drawer, well – his body heat took the worst creases out anyway. He was surprised that Joanne set a couple of small t-shirts aside for ironing later. He thought he might own an iron – but he had no idea where it might be located. Perhaps he had loaned it to someone – maybe. Or maybe he’d never had one. Either way, he was sure it didn’t matter, even if Joanne showed every intention of ironing Chris’s underpants...
Just before noon, Joanne’s sister, Eileen arrived. She was in the middle of a messy divorce, but being determinedly cheerful about it all. She and Johnny hit it off at once and she put him completely at his ease. She put away the children’s clothing, ran the vacuum around the house and then started preparing lunch. She also managed to discreetly assist Johnny with his bathroom needs.
They sat around the table talking, and Jenny graciously shared the problem Johnny had with the hole in his pants. Eileen, who had three children of her own, almost choked to death trying not to laugh out loud. As Joanne ushered the little girl from the room to go to the bathroom and then have a nap, Eileen smiled at Johnny. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” she predicted, still grinning.
“I’m glad you think so,” Johnny disagreed, his face flaming again.
“You think that’s bad? Huh!” Eileen scoffed. “The first time we stayed with my husband’s family, I went for my morning shower. We hadn’t been married all that long and because we didn’t have children, I wasn’t in the habit of locking the bathroom door. In fact, at home, I rarely even shut it. Well, there I was showering happily away. I turned the water off, opened the door and stepped out to find my eight year old niece holding open a towel for me.”
“What did you do?” Johnny asked, visualizing the scene and grateful, for the first time since the accident, that he couldn’t get in the shower. The thought of climbing out and finding Jenny waiting for him was one he couldn’t bear. He so seldom shut his own bathroom door that he wasn’t at all sure he had one! It wasn’t a mistake he wasn’t going to make while staying here.
“What could I do?” Eileen asked rhetorically. “I thanked her politely and wrapped the towel around myself. After all, she had already seen everything there was to see.”
Johnny squirmed. “I’d have died!” he declared.
Eyeing him, Eileen thought she wouldn’t mind seeing Johnny naked just after a shower, but she kept her thoughts to herself. She and Joanne could have a good chat about Johnny’s ‘assets’ once he had gone home again.
“The best bit was probably when she followed me back to the bedroom and watched me drying myself, commenting on the differences between me and her mom.” Eileen still laughed at the memory, although she had been mortified at the time. “Her mom was hugely pregnant at the time,” she confided, “and I got a graphic description of Mom’s gigantic boobs and gigantic tummy.” Her hands mimicked the child’s gestures and they both laughed. “I think gigantic was her word of the week or something.” They laughed together. “Mind you, I’m going to get her back one day. I have the best photo of all time, showing her riding a bike wearing a pink frock and flashing her white knickers for all the world to see!”
“That’s cruel,” Johnny sniggered.
“That’s payback!” Eileen retorted gleefully.
A little before 2 pm, Chris came back from kindergarten. He was full of stories about what he had done and what he had said and who had done this and who had done that and Johnny could feel his eyes glazing over. Chris was a great kid, but couldn’t he change the record?
And when the ‘record’ did change, it was Jenny who brought up the subject of Johnny’s underwear, much to his horror and the children settled down to discuss why Johnny’s boxers didn’t have a picture on the front like Chris’s did. Jenny’s little panties had pictures and bows on the front. This seemed to be a fascinating subject for them.
“Uncle Johnny?” Jenny leaned on the arm of the wheelchair and looked at him adoringly.
“Yes, sweetheart?” he responded, charmed by the sparkling blue eyes and the peachy bloom on her cheeks. She was an exceptionally pretty child, with her blonde curls.
“How do you know which side of your panties is the front?” she asked earnestly.
“Don’t be silly, Jenny,” Joanne chided, coming into the room and catching the question. “Uncle Johnny knows the same way Daddy knows.” This was clearly something that had come up before.
That seemed to satisfy the child, for the moment. Johnny had the nasty, creepy feeling that it might come up again when Joanne wasn’t around to come to his rescue. She plopped down on the couch beside him and propped her leg on the coffee table. “Have you ever noticed,” she asked, placing her crutches nearby, “how these things work your pecs?” She flexed her shoulders. “By the time I’m off them, I won’t need to wear a bra.”
“Joanne!” Johnny spluttered
“Hey, you’re my friend,” she grinned. “Women say these kinds of things to their friends.” She winked at him. “You can tell Roy if you like.”
“I’m not going there!” Johnny avowed. He averted his gaze from his hostess to watch Chris leave the room. A few minutes later, the bathroom door opened and a small voice echoed down the hall.
“Will someone wipe my bottom please?”
It was definitely easier when Roy was home, Johnny thought the next day. Jenny did not drown him while he tried to wash, as Roy helped him in the bathroom – with the door firmly shut. Johnny thought he could develop rather a complex about shutting the bathroom door.
As it was the weekend, Roy took the children round to the local park to play on the equipment there for a while. Since it was a lovely day, Johnny went with them and enjoyed watching Roy pushing them on swings and catching them at the bottom of the slide. Jenny sat down in the sand pit to play with another little girl of a similar age and Chris went off to play tag with a couple of boys he knew. Roy came and sat down beside his partner. “How’re you doing?” he asked.
“This is nice,” Johnny replied. He hated to be cooped up, but until he healed, he was by force going to have to spend a lot more time inside than usual.
“Good,” Roy replied. “The others are coming over tomorrow to have a cook out.”
“Yeah? It’ll be good to see them. Is Cap coming?”
“Yes, but not the Cap you mean,” Roy answered. “Captain Stanley is coming.”
“What’s he like?” Johnny asked, suddenly feeling anxious. It wasn’t a good start to be out sick when you got a new captain.
“He’s a good guy,” Roy smiled. “A really good guy. He’s totally different from Captain Hammer, much more laid back and hands on. Don’t get me wrong, he won’t stand for any nonsense – well, not too much anyway, but he is friendlier than Captain Hammer was.”
“I see.” Johnny knew that Captain Hammer still had a couple of shifts left to work with them, then Captain Smith was going to be doing a shift with them before Captain Stanley took over. Stanley had come to the station to meet the men and it relieved Johnny that Roy liked him.
“This is a good way for us to get to know him and let him get to see us as we really are,” Roy explained.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Johnny asked, the potential pitfalls of several firefighters and two far too honest children being more than obvious to him after the last day or so.
“He might as well know what he’s getting into,” Roy commented, laughing. He glanced at his watch. “We’d better go; I have grocery shopping to do.”
“Let me pitch something into the pot for that,” Johnny said quietly. “Please, Roy.”
“You don’t have to,” Roy told him getting up.
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to,” Johnny replied. “Please.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll accept. Thank you, Johnny.” He called to the children and they headed back to the house.
While Roy did the shopping and Joanne organized stuff for lunch, Johnny played snap with the children. He hadn’t appreciated how dangerous a game it could be, since he hadn’t played it himself since he was about Chris’s age. Jenny’s wild slaps at the cards were just as likely to land on his leg or cheek or give him a black eye. Chris was more accurate, but used all his strength and a couple of times Johnny received a stinging slap on the hand. Needless to say, the kids won every game. Johnny had never been very good at cards and it seemed that nothing had changed. He decided to decline any rematch.
Playing with cars was more in his line, but he was hampered by the fact he couldn’t get down on the floor. He was rather less than enamored to suddenly find himself embroiled in a game of dolls. For reasons that he couldn’t quite fathom, Jenny insisted he had to be the father of about 20 baby dolls.
Okay, that was a slight exaggeration, but he had three sitting on his lap and it seemed one of them... “Uh, Jenny,” he ventured. “Can you take...?” He couldn’t remember the baby’s name.
Smiling with pleasure that Johnny was joining in her game, Jenny came over and took the naked doll and looked down at the large wet stain on Johnny’s pants’ leg. “Oh dear!” she exclaimed seriously. “Molly’s wet herself.” She held the doll up face to face and gazed at her sternly. “You’re very bad!” she told the doll. “You mustn’t pee on Daddy’s leg.” Turning the poor innocent doll upside down, she proceeded to tap its behind. She then handed the doll back to Johnny. “It’s all right, she won’t do it again,” Jenny assured him.
It wasn’t true. Joanne had to rescue Johnny a few minutes later because Molly had sprung several leaks and was removed to sit in the bath tub until all the water she had absorbed from her bath the previous day had finally gone.
Embarrassed, Johnny was relieved when Roy came back and helped him into dry pants. Who knew that having children was such a hazardous occupation?
The cook out went off without a hitch. Johnny took an immediate liking to Captain Stanley, who didn’t stand on ceremony. Mrs. Stanley was a lovely lady and Joanne enjoyed her company. They had many a snigger together over the stories Joanne told her about Johnny’s stay so far.
The guys from 51s made sure that neither Johnny nor the children were left out of things and made a gallant fuss over Joanne, too. The backyard rang with laughter all afternoon. It put to rest all the bad memories of what had happened the last time they had all got together to eat.
Of course, the story of Johnny’s heroism had been passed around the fire department within hours of the accident happening. Like everyone else, Hank Stanley had heard it, along with some scurrilous rumors about what Johnny had really been doing with DeSoto’s wife. He had put a stop to those stories in the station where he was an engineer and he didn’t believe them for a minute. That kind of gossip had no place in a fire station at all as far as he was concerned.
He was pleased to discover that the initial story he had been told was true. The other members of his new crew took great delight in regaling him with the tale, and young Chris held up his now-healed wrist and displayed the plaster cast he had kept. Johnny typically denied any heroics, insisting that anyone one of them would have done the same as him, which was probably true, but still didn’t negate the fact that Johnny had risked his own life to save Joanne.
From what he had been told, had read and had observed for himself that afternoon, Hank Stanley was convinced Johnny would be a valuable asset on his crew. He liked all the men and he especially liked the way they interacted with each other, although he could see that Chet Kelly would need an eye kept on him so that his pranks didn’t get out of hand.
All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.
They soon settled into a routine. On the days Roy was working, it was a mad rush first thing for him to get Johnny up before he had to leave for work. On the other days, they could be more leisurely, for the only person leaving the house was Chris, and that took some of the pressure off.
The thing Johnny missed most was his privacy. Although he was very gregarious, he also was used to living alone and being constantly surrounded by people could be quite tiring. A couple of times, he would have liked to have gone for a nap, but Chris was home from kindergarten and playing in his room, or running in and out and getting things and neither was conducive to sleep. He also felt that he was hampering Joanne and Roy’s private time together, too, which made him uncomfortable.
Eileen was a regular visitor and Johnny really enjoyed her company. If things had been different, he would have been asking her out, but going on any kind of a date at the moment was very problematic, so he was biding his time until he was back on his feet – literally. He fancied that Eileen wouldn’t object, although neither of them was looking for a serious relationship at the moment. He needed to get back to work and start earning some money and Eileen was not yet divorced.
Chris came home from kindergarten complaining he didn’t feel well. He wasn’t feverish, but he was certainly pale. It was a very hot day and Johnny suspected he might be slightly dehydrated. Roy was at work. Joanne tucked the little boy up on the sofa and made sure that there was a suitable receptacle nearby. She knew what kids were like. And sure enough, before long, he started barfing.
Johnny was not a stranger to people barfing. It was one of the least attractive aspects of his job. But he had never experienced children barfing before. With most of the people he encountered, they barfed once and if it happened again, he was usually gone and the nursing staff had to deal with it. Chris took it to a new level. If barfing was an Olympic sport, Chris would have won the gold hands down.
“Do you think it could be food poisoning?” Joanne asked worriedly.
“It might be,” Johnny replied, equally worried. “Where do they keep the kids’ lunches at kindergarten?”
“They have a small kitchen in there.” She looked at Johnny. “I’m worried.”
“I think you should call a squad,” Johnny replied. “He’s not keeping anything down and he’s going to get dehydrated and that’s not good. You go with him and I’ll call Roy and get him to meet you there.”
“But what about Jenny?” Joanne asked.
“I’ll take care of Jenny,” he replied firmly. “I can call one of the neighbors if I need help.” He reached for the phone and called the fire department, clearly explaining the problem and requesting a squad. Once he had done that, he rang the station. Roy all but jumped down the line at him.
“What is it?” he demanded. “What’s wrong?”
Quickly, Johnny explained. Roy said he would meet Joanne at Rampart and passed the phone over to Cap. For the third time, Johnny explained what was going on and Cap said he would organize a replacement for Roy. By then, the squad was there and Jenny climbed on to Johnny’s lap to watch wide-eyed as Chris was given an IV and taken away in an ambulance with her mother. Unsurprisingly, she promptly burst into tears.
It took a while, but Johnny finally got her to calm down. It was about then that he realized the difficulty they were in. Jenny wanted a drink, but couldn’t manage to open the fridge herself and the glasses and faucet were out of her reach. After bravely proclaiming he could phone a neighbor to ask for help, it occurred to him that he didn’t know any of their numbers. His next port of call was Eileen, but she wasn’t picking up the phone. He was stuck.
There was nothing else for it. He took his arm out of the sling, released the brakes on the chair and slowly wheeled himself into the kitchen, pretending to himself that his arm wasn’t protesting with every movement. He got a glass out of the dishwasher and poured Jenny something virulently colored which was in a jug in the fridge. That kept her quiet while Johnny thought about what he was going to do next.
They could stay in the kitchen, because Jenny would want something to eat before too long. She could bring her toys into the kitchen and play with them under his watchful gaze there on the floor or at the table. Once he somehow conjured something for them to eat (and reaching the stove was going to be interesting) she would then have to be supervised cleaning her teeth and going to bed.
“Why don’t you bring your toys through here?” Johnny coaxed, once she had finished her drink.
“I’m not allowed toys in the kitchen,” she replied. “Mommy gets cross.”
“Well, this is a special occasion,” Johnny cajoled her. “Mommy won’t be mad if I explain it to her.”
The little girl thought round and about the matter and finally nodded. She hurried off to bring through various toys, although Johnny drew the line at everything from her room. For a moment, he thought there would be tears, but she acquiesced.
That stratagem worked for a while. Jenny played happily while Johnny looked in the cupboards and fridge for inspiration of what to feed her. He was coming up pretty short, not having a clue what to cook for a child. While Joanne made sure they all had a good meal each evening, he was not going to take the risk of cooking something, mainly because cooking was a closed book to him.
Pizza! That reliable stand-by of the bachelor! He could order out pizza! Except...
Except that he wasn’t exactly sure where his wallet was, and he didn’t want Jenny answering the door by herself and ... Jenny couldn’t manage to open the front door anyway. It was too difficult for her – rather like this meal was proving for him. Why was nothing ever easy? He resisted the urge to put his head in his hands and groan aloud.
Eventually he decided on beans on toast, which even he couldn’t ruin and they tucked in companionably. Jenny managed to mostly wash the tomato sauce off her face afterwards and even went to the toilet on her own, to Johnny’s considerable relief. Jenny then brought a story book and he read it to her before sending her to get her pajamas.
That was when the trouble really started. Jenny wanted to stay up till Mommy came home with Chris, but Johnny knew that Joanne was strict about bedtime. He compromised and allowed her half an hour more, showing her where the big hand would on the kitchen clock. After half an hour, she would go to bed.
Except she wouldn’t. Jenny had a magnificent tantrum, feet stomping, yelling, flailing her arms with her fists clenched and crying throughout. Johnny had never seen anything like it – or heard anything like it either! He shushed her, receiving several punches for his troubles, and backed off reasoning she would wind down pretty quickly.
Nope. That didn’t work. Frustrated, embarrassed, Johnny did the first thing he thought of; shouted at her. “Jennifer DeSoto! Be quiet right now!”
There was a stunned silence as Jenny gazed at him with a hurt expression on her face and Johnny felt a sort of shamed pride that he had managed to calm her down so well, but he was sadly mistaken. With a choked sob, Jenny started up again and really let go this time. If she had been noisy before, this time she broke the sound barrier. As she went on and on, Johnny fully expected the doorbell to ring and police to come to find out who was killing an innocent child.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Jenny began to wind down herself, through sheer exhaustion and Johnny took the opportunity to lift the sobbing child onto his lap and held her against his chest, stroking her hair, rocking gently and making soothing sounds, like he had heard Joanne do before. It worked. She hiccupped once or twice before heaving a big sigh and stuffing her thumb into her mouth. She snuggled closer to Johnny and closed her eyes. She was asleep in moments.
The relief was overwhelming. Johnny sat there hugging her for a while. He knew he would have to put her to bed but immediately hit a big snag; when he tried to let go of her, she clung on tighter, and even if he did manage to get disentangled, he couldn’t move the chair and hold on to her at the same time.
It looked like he was stuck nursing the sleeping child until someone came to his rescue.
It was another two hours before anyone appeared. Johnny was growing very weary and incredibly bored, as he had nothing to do except hold the sleeping toddler. He also desperately needed a bathroom break. He heard the front door open and almost groaned aloud with relief.
Joanne was the first into the kitchen and smiled when she saw the sweet picture presented there to her. But then, switching on the light, she saw more clearly the lines of strain in Johnny’s face and the tear stains on Jenny’s. The smile faded. “Roy is just putting Chris to bed,” she told Johnny in a low voice. “He’ll be right through.”
“How is Chris?” Johnny asked.
“Fine now, thanks,” Joanne replied, with relief in her voice. “It doesn’t seem to have been food poisoning, just a fast-acting short-lived bug. Dixie phoned round some of the other families from kindergarten and quite a few of the others have had it, too. Unfortunately, Chris seems to have had the worst bout.” She sighed. “But he’s all right now, that’s the main thing. He got very dehydrated, but Dr Brackett said you calling a squad when you did made all the difference in how fast he recovered. How’s Jenny been?”
“Not too bad,” Johnny replied.
“It doesn’t look like it from here,” Joanne commented. “Jenny’s been crying.”
Heaving a sigh, Johnny related their afternoon and evening to her, not sparing himself anything in the telling. He was pretty sure that Joanne would be angry that he had shouted at Jenny and he felt hugely guilty over doing so anyway. Perhaps his sojourn at the DeSotos’ would come to an end after this night and he certainly would never be left alone with the kids again.
That thought caused him surprising pain. He loved the kids and wanted to spend more time with them, even if they did drive him mad with the constant questions and demands. Somewhere down the line, Johnny now knew for certain that he wanted his own family, even with all the embarrassment, noise, mess and costs.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Joanne whispered, leaning in close. “Every parent in the world has shouted at a child when they should have been patient instead and anyone who says differently is a liar! It is impossible to be patient every single hour of every single day. Things combine to frustrate you, tire you out and you snap. It’s natural. The unnatural thing is if you don’t then feel like a complete heel for shouting at them.” She kissed his cheek. “I can’t thank you enough for staying with her.”
It was amazing how much better he felt after that. Roy came into the kitchen and removed the sleeping child and then helped Johnny with going to the bathroom. Johnny reflected briefly how much of his stay had thoughts of bathrooms connected with it! They talked for a time while Roy tidied up Jenny’s toys and rinsed the dishes Johnny and Jenny had used. However, they were all beat, and before long, Roy was helping Johnny into bed.
“Thanks for everything, Johnny,” he said as he put the light out.
“You’re welcome, Pally,” Johnny replied, thinking that he would be willing to do it any time.
Morning came far too soon after a restless night. Although he wasn’t going to kindergarten that day, Chris was awake early and hungry. He climbed into bed with Johnny and the two lay chatting. Johnny, however, was aware that something was not right in his body, although he was not sure what. Chris lay snuggled against his right side, chatting away about his experience in the hospital. Now that he was better, it all seemed to be one great big adventure.
Finally, Roy and Joanne got up and Roy came and chased the little boy off to the bathroom and breakfast and came to help Johnny get up. It was as he was sitting up that Johnny realized what was wrong. His bad shoulder started throbbing with pain at once and moving his arm was a nightmare. There was going to be a penalty to pay for yesterday after all.
He hid the pain as best he could until breakfast was over, but by then, he knew he needed help. “Roy, can I talk to you?” he asked, drawing his friend away from the family.
“What’s up, Junior?” Roy asked, looking him over. He had not had much time to pay attention to Johnny this morning, as the kids had been full of life, claiming his attention. Now he could see that Johnny was pale. “What is it?” he asked urgently.
“My shoulder,” Johnny admitted. “I think I’ve strained it again.”
At once, Roy went into paramedic mode, taking Johnny’s pulse and gently feeling the shoulder. There didn’t seem to be anything out of place as far as he could tell, but it was clearly very tender indeed. “We need to go to Rampart,” Roy told him.
Dropping his head, Johnny simply nodded. He had known that since he got up that morning. And even if he hadn’t agreed, there was nothing he could do to stop Roy simply taking him. “I’m sorry,” he apologized.
“What for?” Roy asked, slipping on a pair of shoes. “You must have done that yesterday while looking after Jenny. You did what you had to do,” he went on. “Goodness knows, you did very well with her for your first time alone, never mind that you’re hampered by being in the chair and all. Joanne?” He fished the car keys from his pocket and sorted out the one for the station wagon. There was no way Johnny could get in the Porsche. “I’m taking Johnny to Rampart.”
Worry darkened Joanne’s face. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“His shoulder,” Roy replied. “I’ll phone as soon as I know anything.” He took Johnny outside and then enlisted the help of his next door neighbor, who was outside doing some gardening, to load Johnny into the car.
“I’m going to have to do surgery,” Brackett announced, gazing at the x-rays. “This ligament is torn.”
Groaning, Johnny dropped his head. He waited for the lecture that was sure to follow, the one that chided him for doing far too much and for not getting help of some kind. However, it didn’t come. “It isn’t entirely surprising,” Brackett went on. “You know that ligament has been worrying us a bit since the beginning. And I’d rather it happened now than later. It won’t set your recovery back too far.”
“How far is too far?” Johnny asked gloomily.
“You should be ready to use crutches about the time you get the casts off. As you know, because of the multiple fractures, you’re going to be in plaster a bit longer than normal to give the bones a chance to knit.” Brackett patted Johnny’s arm. “We’ll do the op this afternoon.”
Disconsolate, Johnny waited with Roy until the orderlies came to take him to his room. He wouldn’t be back at the DeSotos’ for a couple of days and then he would be even more helpless than he was before.
The operation went well, apart from Johnny vomiting copiously afterwards. Although Brackett was pretty sure this was from the anesthesia, as Johnny was very sleepy afterwards for longer than usual, there was the slight concern that Johnny had come down with the same bug as Chris, so he was isolated for the first day and barrier nursed. Johnny was far too groggy to care that his nurses came in looking like some kind of aliens.
By the second day, Johnny was back to his usual self and eating voraciously. Brackett discharged him that afternoon and he returned to the DeSoto home just in time for the dinner Joanne had prepared in his honor. Johnny was touched, especially by Jenny’s warm welcome. She threw her arms round Johnny’s neck and planted a wet kiss somewhere under his ear. “I’ve missed you, Uncle Johnny,” she intoned solemnly. He learned then that children are very forgiving. Sometimes.
A few days later, Roy proposed that the whole family should go down to the beach. This was greeted very enthusiastically by the children, but less so by Johnny, who knew the wheelchair would be a total liability on the sand. However, he was not allowed to bow out and on the day found himself loaded into the back of the car with the kids perched around him and next door’s excitable West Highland white terrier puppy along for the ride, too.
Luckily, Johnny liked dogs, because this little dog, at just a year old, adored every human it met and spent the whole journey jumping from lap to lap. It clearly viewed the children as its litter mates.
The spot of beach Roy took them to was perfect. A ramp led down to the sand and had a nice flat concrete apron where Johnny was soon parked. Joanne got a deck chair next to him and the coolers of soda and food were pushed into the shade. Then Roy headed off with the kids and the dog to hopefully wear them all out.
“This is the best exfoliator in the world,” Joanne enthused, kicking off her one sandal and digging her toes into the soft, warm sand.
“It is?” Johnny replied blankly.
“Sand,” Joanne elucidated. “Have you never noticed that when you’ve been walking barefoot on the beach, your feet are lovely and smooth after some moisturizer?” She saw the bemused look on his face at the word ‘moisturizer’ and laughed. “Well, clearly not! I suppose you’re like Roy and one of these macho men who doesn’t use moisturizer?”
“Um ... no, I don’t,” he admitted. “Isn’t that what you put on your face? Costs a fortune?”
“It can cost a fortune,” Joanne admitted. “But you can get good stuff fairly cheaply and if you think a jar of moisturizer lasts 6 months, then $10 or so is not that bad...” She shook her head. “I keep forgetting I don’t have to explain these things to you. But you’ll learn all about them when you get married.”
“I’m in no danger of that yet,” he smiled. He took the can of soda Joanne offered him. “Thanks.” He took a sip.
“Eileen thinks you have a cute bum,” Joanne confided and Johnny choked on the soda and start coughing.
“What?” he spluttered.
“Oh you heard me,” Joanne scolded, not at all put off by the blush that raced up to encompass his ears. “She says the line of your hip is pretty erotic, too.”
“Joanne!” Johnny was stunned. “You’ve been talking about me?”
“When you were in the hospital the other day,” Joanne admitted calmly. She looked at his expression. “Now don’t tell me you, Roy and the others don’t talk about girls’ assets, because I won’t believe it. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander you know.”
“I believe you,” Johnny weakly replied. He was stunned at the direction the conversation had taken, but found he was quite enjoying thinking about Eileen thinking about him. Very flattering indeed, in fact.
“And you can’t tell me you don’t fancy Eileen, too,” Joanne went on. “We both have eyes in our heads. Maybe once you’re better and she’s divorced and ready to move on....”
“Maybe,” Johnny agreed. “And maybe for fun before that.”
Reaching over, Joanne patted Johnny’s arm. “You’re a nice guy, John Gage and I wish I had realized that sooner.”
For once, he was speechless.
Eventually, Roy returned with the kids and the dog and all of them were soaking wet. The dog wasn’t white anymore and proceeded to shake himself all over everyone before having a good old roll in the sand. Roy secured him and gave him some water and before too long, the little animal was busy trying to dig to China. He was making a pretty good effort at it, too, but sadly for him, no one really appreciated having sand thrown over them in large quantities while they were trying to eat.
While Joanne tidied away the remnants, with Johnny’s one-handed help, Roy took the children and dog off for another last paddle. With a sinking feeling, Johnny realized he was going to be wet through when they got home, as he was stuck with all three of them, because he couldn’t sit anywhere but the back.
Luckily, Roy had also thought of that, for he produced several large towels and covered Johnny’s casts with them, for the last thing they needed was the casts getting wet. Even so, Johnny’s shorts were still quite damp when they arrive back home, because the dog had curled up and slept on his lap. It also emitted some really noxious smells which made the kids laugh, for they were ‘silent by deadly’ according to Chris. That caused all the car windows to be opened post haste! He and Jenny had also snoozed on the way home. Despite the care Joanne had taken with sunscreen, Jenny was still a bit pink, but her skin was so fair it was almost inevitable.
The neighbor seemed delighted to get the semi-dry, sand-covered dog back and was last seen vigorously brushing the sand out of its curly coat
The kids weren’t the only ones who were tired. All the adults were too and there were early bedtimes all round. It had been a great day.
“Did you never think of having a dog?” Johnny asked Roy next day as they sat on the deck.
“Are you kidding?” Roy replied as Chris walked past, breaking wind loudly and unselfconsciously. “Chris!” he chided.
Unperturbed by his parent’s ire, Chris muttered, “Sorry,” in a tone that implied that he was only saying the word to humor Roy. He clearly wasn’t in the least sorry.
“We don’t need a dog to fart!” Roy laughed. “We have Chris for that.” Johnny laughed, too. The little boy took immense glee in breaking wind, much to Joanne’s disgust. “Seriously, a dog would be some protection for Joanne when I’m gone, but how do you walk a dog last thing at night when you have two small children in the house? And we don’t really want it going in the yard because the kids play out here all the time.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Johnny admitted. He wondered how on earth he would manage a horse if he ever managed to save up enough to buy a place where he could keep one. It was something else to think about.
The following week, Joanne got her cast off. Johnny still had two weeks to go, even though they had been injured at the same time. On the plus side, his shoulder was healing well and his recovery looked to be on track. Joanne was so pleased to have the cast off that she was almost dancing on air. Johnny was enchanted to see her like that and the next time Eileen was over, the pair of them hatched a plan.
“Roy, Joanne, I’d like to talk to you, please,” Johnny said one evening after the kids had gone to bed.
“This sounds serious,” Joanne mentioned anxiously.
“It is, but serious in a nice way,” Johnny replied. He wasn’t quite sure how to start what he wanted to say. “I ... um ... you guys... you’ve been so great ... having me here and all and ... well ... you see...”
“Spit it out,” Roy ordered.
“As a way to thank you, I want you to accept this. And I won’t take no for an answer.” Johnny retrieved an envelope from his sling and handed it to Joanne.
Looking quizzically at him for a moment, Joanne opened the envelope and drew out the contents. She gasped and put her free hand to her mouth and showed it to Roy. He gasped as well. “Johnny...”
“No, it’s not too much,” Johnny replied. “You’ve saved me so much trouble and money and have been so kind to me since I came here. It seems to me the least I can do. It’s all arranged, anyway. The table is booked and Eileen is coming over to help me with the kids.”
“But Johnny, this is a lot of money,” Joanne protested. She held the voucher for $60 for a local restaurant that Roy had once mentioned to Johnny that he would love to take Joanne to when they had some spare money. With Eileen’s connivance, Johnny had booked them a table. “It isn’t as if you haven’t contributed while you’ve been here.”
“This is a gift,” Johnny replied. “You told me to make myself at home. Well, in my home, we give gifts to the people we love.” He dropped his eyes, embarrassed by his own words.
Moments later, he was in a perfumed embrace. “You’re more than just a friend,” Joanne told him, tears in her eyes. “You are a member of this family and don’t you ever forget it.”
Unable to find words to say, Roy just hugged Johnny briefly, but in that way that made them such great partners, Johnny knew exactly what he was thinking and he smiled up at his friend. They didn’t need words.
The great evening came. Eileen arrived in plenty of time and she and Johnny ushered Joanne and Roy out of the door in good time. The children were put to bed with relatively little fuss. Before long, Johnny and Eileen were petting heavily and she helped him to the floor and slowly, tantalizingly, helped him take his clothes off.
“Just for fun,” she whispered, leaning over to kiss him deeply before stripping off her own clothing.
“Just for fun,” Johnny echoed before he stopped thinking and simply started feeling.
The casts were off. It felt amazing, but also weird, because his muscles were weak and he had a few weeks of physical therapy ahead of him. His shoulder had been given a clean bill of health, too. Although the urge to go home was strong, Johnny also felt a surge of regret that his time with the DeSotos was coming to an end. He had learned to enjoy being part of a family.
“You’re very quiet,” Roy commented that evening as they sat on the deck drinking a beer.
“I was just thinking,” Johnny replied. “I’ve never told you about my life, have I?”
“No,” Roy replied simply. “I figured when you were ready you would. Don’t rush into it because you think you ought to.”
“I want to tell you.” Johnny took a sip of beer as he organized his thoughts. “You know I’m a half-breed and I lived on the reservation till I was 8. Mom was white and Dad was a full-blood. It didn’t go down well when he came home with a white bride, let me tell you. People would shout things at us in the street and we didn’t fit in anywhere. I used to get picked on at school a lot.” He looked thoughtful. “I had a baby sister, but she was still-born and after that, Mom couldn’t have any more children. I know they were both devastated. When I was 8, they went out for the evening and that was the last time I saw them. They had a tire blow out on the steepest bit of the road and went over the edge.”
Unconsciously, Roy reached out and put his hand over Johnny’s. Johnny looked up and flashed a smile. “It was a long time ago,” he denied.
“But the hurt never entirely goes away,” Roy reminded him and Johnny knew Roy was thinking about his own later father.
“I was in an orphanage in the small town at the edge of the reservation for two years,” Johnny went on, nodding to acknowledge Roy’s words. “It was pretty basic, I guess. Clean enough, but only the oldest kids got new clothes. The rest of us made do with hand-me-downs and some of them were pretty threadbare. Food was placed in big bowls and on plates on the table and if you didn’t grab and shove it into your mouth quickly, you didn’t get enough. That’s why I talk with my mouth full, although I don’t mean to. I do know better, but old habits die hard.” He sighed.
“When I was 10, I was fostered. The couple was nice enough, but they didn’t really care what I did as long as I didn’t get into trouble with the law. I pretty much ran wild, although I did keep my nose clean. There’s plenty of mischief that a boy can get up to without breaking the law. I skipped school when I could get away with it, did the bare minimum to get by, because it wasn’t cool to be clever. And then my aunt found me. She’d been abroad when Mom and Dad died and had then spent a couple of years tracking me down and applying to become my legal guardian. The couple I was living with were supposed to have told me about her, but they hadn’t. Perhaps they thought nothing would come of it, I don’t know.
“That was the turning point for me, Roy. Aunt Kathy put me back on the right road. She told me off, demanded that I obey her rules and stood over me while I did homework. She encouraged me to join the track team when coach suggested it and I liked working on the school paper. I’m lucky she sent me to a school that rewarded kids for learning. She taught me that even though I had had a tough life, that was no excuse to be lazy and badly behaved and I learned from it.” Johnny took another sip of beer.
“When I graduated from high school, I knew I couldn’t go to college. I might have been able to get a partial scholarship, but it’s more difficult when you’re an Indian. If a white person comes along with more to offer, you can get bounced off. I’d been working at part time jobs after school for a while, helping out with the housekeeping and stuff. My aunt had a low-paid job and I knew there was no way she could afford to send me to college, so I decided that I had to make my own way in the world. I’d watched some firefighters working a crash site near the school I went to and thought I’d like to try that. I applied for the Academy and got accepted.”
And you came out top of your class,” Roy reminded him proudly. “You went on to become one of the youngest rescue men in the county and the youngest paramedic, at the time.”
“Have you been checking up on me?” Johnny asked suspiciously.
“I did after you signed up for the paramedic course,” Roy admitted. “I checked everyone out.”
“You’re sneaky,” Johnny accused him.
“Yup,” Roy agreed complacently.
“Once I got my first permanent posting, I started saving for my own place. When I could afford the deposit, my aunt let me have some of her furniture because she was going back abroad. She teaches English in Mexico and other South American countries and earns a bit more than she did when she lived here, but not much. I send her money every month.” Johnny paused for a second, but he had told Roy everything that was important. “That’s basically all there is to tell.”
“I suspect there’s a lot more,” Roy mused, deeply moved by his partner’s story. “I’m honored you shared that with me.” He became bashful, as men always do when sharing deep emotions with each other.
“You’re more than my best friend, Roy,” Johnny mumbled, now embarrassed, too, but determined to say this. “You’re my family now. You and Joanne and the kids.”
Moving almost silently, Joanne came onto the decking. She had been listening at the door to Johnny’s revelations and now felt she really understood her new friend. She leant over and wrapped her arms around his neck from behind and rested her chin on his head.
“And you are our family, Johnny,” she whispered. “You will always be our family.”
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