"When you came back here, when you were hurt, we used to walk down to the lake in the afternoon. Do you remember that?" Mary Sheppard looked at her son and felt what she always felt about John. A great nameless mixture of anger and sadness and fear and love, a near-perfect reversal of the way she felt about God. God was her support and her solace; with John she was helpless, kept out, pushed away. He had the easy power of her destruction in him, and she was resigned to this.
David resented him, of course, and she ached for her firstborn in her own way. He was always in the shadow of the prodigal son. It was unfair, she knew it was. David was the shore, solid underfoot, stable, taken for granted. John was the the ocean, coming and going and impossible to hold. She'd tried too hard the last time he'd been home convalescent, but what mother could watch the child she'd rocked in her arms suffer and not want to do something?
But John, John... what she had to give was never enough for him.
He turned his head to look at her now. Sometime in the past year or so he had lost his adjustment to monocular sight as well as a great deal of his memory. He was far more cautious in his movements now, and he walked into walls and chairs, awkward, stripped of hard-earned grace. The doctors were making him wear an eyepatch instead of the prosthetic, and she wondered if he planned on telling her what was wrong. Probably not.
"I don't remember," he said. "I'm sorry."
"I'm in the mood for walking, anyway," Mary said, and stood. "You probably need to get out for a while. It can't be that exciting for you around here." She raised her eyebrow at him. "You wouldn't want Rod to think you'd been worrying about him."
"He's a big boy. I'm sure he can play nice with Dave for an afternoon."
"Darling, it's when he plays nice that I worry."
John grinned at that. "Courtesy, dishonesty, potayto, potahto."
"You like him better when he's rude." And that was the wrong thing to say. John's face smoothed into blankness, making him somehow look more wounded. "You want me to get you your jacket, or maybe a hat?"
"Jeez." John pushed himself up from the sofa, trying to approximate his normal easy strength. He moved like the robot in Wizard of Oz, rusty and stiff, and winced as he stretched his shoulders straight. "Just break out the bubble wrap and have at me."
"Enjoy the overprotection while you have it, mister," she snapped back, touching his hair to let him know she was teasing. A firm touch, she'd learned, didn't startle him as much as a soft one, and she was careful to let him see her movements. She was saddened to have to know these things about him; she wished she could be like Patrick and David, who didn't or wouldn't or couldn't know John the way she did. "We'd better hurry, then. It gets cool around four these days."
"Power walking," John said, with that little amused twist to his mouth, and he held the door for her.
Mary was grateful for the cardigan she'd put on earlier. It was warm wool to ward off the chill. She'd been growing steadily colder over the past few days.
She talked about the birds which came to her feeder, and about the trouble she had with squirrels. She talked about the raccoons which got into the kitchen last year, and the poor little bat that had flown down the chimney. She'd had to climb up on the piano to get it out of the curtains with David's fishing net.
John grinned, and asked questions, and laughed in the right places, and warned her about rabies and falls in the home being dangerous. The sadness that she sensed from him was almost palpable.
"So," she said, finally ready to say what was on her mind as they turned down by the country club and onto the gravel lane that led down to the boardwalk. "Did they have that television show, the X-Files, where you come from?"
"What?" he said, suddenly gone as wary as one of her wild creatures.
"Or The Twilight Zone," she continued. "We get them on the television now -- all those kinds of shows. The monsters and the costumes are always silly, but the stories make you think. Think about, oh, clones, or time travel, or aliens that can look exactly like someone but still not be them." She looked straight at him, putting on a brave face even though her heart was hammering itself apart. "Which are you?"
"I'm John Sheppard," he said.
"But you're not my son. You can't bring yourself to call me mom. Your selective amnesia has near-perfect recall of your job and your friends, but not your family. And what you do remember, you get wrong most of the time. You don't remember me or the things we've done together. If you are John Sheppard, then you're a John who didn't have a mother."
John took a breath, then another, looking out toward the lake. He made a sudden sharp scoffing noise, and took the eyepatch off. Of course, Mary thought, of course, and felt sudden irrational anger that her son had suffered where this man hadn't. "My mother died," John said, voice flat and final. "Your John and me, we switched places, and... maybe he never told you how hard things were for him. But where I come from, he fits in. Found someone," he added with a shrug. "And I feel like such an asshole for being here instead of him."
"Under my roof you watch your language," Mary told him, and felt in her pockets for a handkerchief. She found one just in time to wipe her eyes before any tears fell, and John shoved his hands hard into his own pockets, as if he knew how unwelcome comfort from him would be. "Why did you come here?" The sunlight on the water was honey-dark and heavy, and all the ducks seemed to be moving in slow motion, in and out of the shadows, ripples patterning the lake like quilting.
"I'm sorry," John said, raw-voiced, sounding just Patrick had when his brother died, even though it had been cancer and they'd been prepared. Nothing in Mary's life had prepared her this... cuckoo in the nest, this imposter, standing here and telling her that John had chosen to give up his whole world and would never be home again.
She turned her handkerchief inside out; there were still a few dry spots left.
"Who did you leave behind?" she asked, and then before her good manners could self-edit, "Do you miss them?"
John swallowed, but nodded, as if she was perfectly within her rights. "My friends -- my team. Had a bad fight with my father six, seven years, haven't seen him or Dave since, but.... My team was my family. And I can't imagine how you feel. I won't stay," and he made himself look right at her, "I'll go and I won't come back, I shouldn't have come."
"But you did," Mary heard herself saying, and right there was the heartbreak in the situation. "I don't even know you, but part of me wants to love you the same way I love my own boys. I'll never see John again," he made an involuntary wounded noise, and clenched his jaw tight, "but you never thought you'd see your mother again. Do I look like her?" she asked, even though she didn't need to hear his answer to know.
He shrugged, a stiff yank of his shoulders up and down, like he was being shaken. The sun had sunk low enough that shadows were springing up around them; John looked pale and cold, and Mary supposed that the story Rod had told about him being wounded and recovering was probably true. "I think so," John said, slow reluctance in his words. "I was only fifteen when she died. She had, her hair was the same as mine, and she used to wear it long."
"I have pictures," Mary said, but John shook his head urgently and said no. "We can't be strangers," and she was nearly ashamed by the ferocity of emotion she felt, anger and grief and fear. But she'd felt this way before, hearing John had been shot down, boarding a plane while asking God not to let her child die before she got to his side. And John hadn't been the same afterward, not just the scars, his missing eye, but a kind of silent bitterness that he'd turned in on himself. He'd shut her out, Mary knew, when all she wanted for him was happiness and love.
She supposed this John's mother felt the same way, once.
"Let me take you back," John said patiently, as if he was repeating himself, and Mary startled out of her thoughts. John stiffened and spread his hands, signalling that he was going to keep his distance and not touch her, that he meant no threat. "It's windy," he added. "you should... you look cold."
Mary reached out and puts her hand on his arm, as if he was her escort, and then slid her palm down until they were holding hands, fingers lacing together. John looked down, then away over the water, anywhere but at her. ""I need to miss him and be angry," she said. "Give me some time. But when I'm ready, come home. Can you promise me that?"
"Yeah," John said, and made himself meet her eyes. She had a moment of fear that he was going to say something horrible, reassure her that her son had loved her, but instead he just tugged gently at her hand until she turned with him, moving into a land populated by dusk and shadows, the lights of home cold and no comfort at all.