When John’s finally cried himself out, Poppy takes him upstairs to bed. He looks completely blitzed- not that she can blame him, with what he’s been through- and he’s not responding to her anymore. He stumbles upstairs, leaning on her. His eyes are closed almost before he hits the bed. Poppy pulls his shoes off and then wrestles him out of his jacket and overshirt. He’s limp, which doesn’t make it any easier, but she manages. She settles his pillow under him and lays a quilt over him; the purple one, the one he was so worried about the other day.
She sits down on the chair next to his bed, and struggles not to cry. She’d known when she met him that he’d been hurt; she’d seen for herself how badly damaged he was, but this-
She knows that the world can be hard for men like John, but she can’t imagine-
She swallows an angry sob and realizes that the thing that bothers her the most about the story is that John’s family had been murdered by his father. How does a parent do that? How could a parent look at his own son, his own grandchildren, those little white-haired babies, and hate so bad that he has to kill? He must have thought that he was saving his son, but- but those children-
Daisy is alive. She hates Poppy, and for good reason, but she’s alive. John doesn’t have that comfort. He’ll be missing those babies forever, with no hope for them.
John doesn’t come down for breakfast the next morning, and Poppy’s not surprised. She goes up to check on him, and finds him still asleep, curled in a ball under the quilt. She doesn’t wake him. Instead, she calls Oscar. “John Watch again?” he asks, without much explaining. “I’ll call around. Can you manage until one of the girls can get over there?”
“I’ll just go open up the library and come back,” she tells him.
It’s Oscar that comes, though, about twenty minutes later. Poppy gets up when she sees him, and shuts John’s door behind her quietly.
“Is there anything I should know?” he asks.
Poppy shakes her head. That story sure as hell isn’t hers to tell. “He remembered something about his past,” she tells Oscar. “It was pretty bad.”
Oscar nods. “Poppy,” he says, uncertainly, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I think I figured out who John really is.”
Poppy frowns. “Would he want me to know?” she asks. “Is it something I need to know?”
Oscar sighs. “I couldn’t say,” he tells her. “But- he’s really not from around here. Don’t be surprised if you see something weird, that’s all.”
Poppy’s not sure what he means by that, but she files it away for future reference. She nods, and Oscar takes his paperwork into the room with him.
Poppy comes back over the lunch break, and John’s pretty much the same. He doesn’t wake up in the afternoon, Stacy tells her, and he’s still asleep when she shuts down the library and tells Beverly to go on home.
When she wakes up, back screaming from sleeping in a chair, his eyes are open. “John?” she says, but he doesn’t respond. She puts a hand on his shoulder. “John, honey? Are you with me?” She shakes his shoulder a little, pats his cheek gently. His blue eyes keep staring off into space no matter what she does. “That’s okay,” she says, finally. “It’s okay, kiddo. You take all the time you need.”
It’s not that he doesn’t move. Poppy finds him in the bathroom that afternoon, sitting on the floor like he’s forgotten where he was going, his blue eyes still staring into nothing. His hands are damp, and the toilet’s been flushed, so he’s still there on some level. “Come on,” she says, and helps him up. He walks, hesitantly, though he’s not watching where he’s going. Poppy gets him back sitting on his bed. He just sits there, staring at the wall.
When she offers him food, though, he doesn’t eat it. That’s what finally gets her to call Eleanor. “We should really call a doctor,” Eleanor argues, after checking John over. “He’s responding to basic stimuli, but if he won’t eat or drink then he’s going to get sick.”
Poppy frowns. She knows what a doctor means- she was in a couple psych wards herself, back when she was trying to get clean. Maybe it is what John needs, but she doesn’t want that for him if she can help it. “Let’s just give him a little time,” she argues. “If he’s still not eating tomorrow, then I promise I’ll bring him in.”
Poppy can tell that Eleanor’s worried, but she finally agrees. “But I’ll be back to check on him,” she says.
The next morning, Poppy’s able to feed him a little soup, and she feels much better about the whole thing.
John Watch continues, as people can manage it. There’s a stream of people in and out of the library, but there’s always a stream of people in and out of the library, so it’s not a huge disruption. The children miss John at storytime, especially Meggie. When she hears that John is sick, she insists on visiting him- but Poppy won’t let her. She doesn’t know if seeing Meggie will make things better or worse, but she’s still barely getting a few spoonfuls of soup into him every day, and she doesn’t want to risk it.
One night, she wakes up to hear him screaming. He’s curled up on the bed when she runs into the room, sobbing, tears running down his cheeks. She holds him, telling him meaningless things, trying to offer comfort against a horror that she can barely imagine. He sleeps again after that, and it’s most of a day until he wakes up again. He still doesn’t talk or look at anyone.
Poppy’s starting to be worried that he’s never going to come out of it. She doesn’t want to give him over to a hospital, but it’s been well over a week, and he seems pretty much the same. After the one night, he doesn’t cry. He doesn’t make any sound at all, even when he stubs his toes on his way to the bathroom or Poppy accidentally spills soup on him. Tom is spending more time with her, because it’s too hard being alone with a John who seems like he’d be just as happy to starve to death.
She almost cries with relief the first time he talks again. It’s nothing much. She asks him if he’d like something to drink, and he says “yes, thank you.” When she looks at him, her heart pounding, it’s like nothing ever changed. He’s still staring blankly at the wall, and his eyes don’t track her hand when she waves it in front of his face. But when she brings him a glass of water, he takes it and drinks it himself.
She starts trying to get him out of the house, after that. Tom takes him to his workshop and sits him on a chair in the corner. Beverly drives him out into the woods. Poppy brings him down to the library. Everyone knows better than to bother him. He starts responding, a little. He feeds himself now, instead of Poppy having to spoon the food into his mouth. When she holds him, he leans into her. When he wakes in the night, gasping without really crying, he holds her hand.
After a while, she brings him his notebook. She sharpens a pencil and puts it on top. He didn’t really use it before, she knows, but maybe he’ll want to now. He needs to talk to someone, but maybe it’s too hard to tell another person. The notebook will help. And he does use it, to her surprise. The next day, she finds him writing furiously, tears tracking unnoticed down his cheeks. She leaves him alone, then. There are times he needs to be alone with his pain, and times he needs comfort. She’s not sure she’s all that good at knowing which are which, but she tries.
He starts talking to people again. It’s quiet and tentative at first, but if someone talks to him, he’ll respond. Without being asked, he starts working on the reshelving again. Poppy gives him little tasks to do, and he does them. He doesn’t ask to do storytime again, though, and he usually finds a reason to be out of the library when it happens.
Jess is the one who loses patience with him. Poppy hasn’t told anybody what happened to John, but they know it has something to do with children. Maybe they guess that he had his own and lost them, even if they don’t know the whole story. But John loved the children who came to the library, and he loved Emmett and Meggie, and it’s obvious to everyone that he’s avoiding them now. One day, Jess corners him in the library and pushes a squirming Emmett into his arms. She glares at him, daring him to run. John holds the baby gently, cautiously, but after a while it’s clear it’s too much for him. Jess takes Emmett back, and John runs. He doesn’t come down again the rest of the day.
All the same, he stops hiding during storytime. He doesn’t stay, exactly, but she’ll see him sometimes, shelving books or working at the front desk. And when Jess and Emmett stop by, he doesn’t run. Eventually, Poppy sees him holding Emmett again; playing tentatively with Meggie. One day, sitting next to him on the bench in the science fiction section, she gets up the courage to ask him about them. “Can you tell me about them?” she says. He knows who she means.
He leans against her, his body tense. His breathing is rough, and she can tell that he’s trying to talk, but can’t. She wants to stroke his hair and say, it’s okay kiddo, don’t worry about it, I’m sorry I asked. But then he flips to an empty page of his book. He lays a hand on it, and there’s this green glow and then there’s a picture there, like someone drew it. That’s what Oscar meant, she thinks. “They’re gorgeous, John,” she tells him, because it’s true. He’ll need to remember that, along with all the horror and the grief. He’ll need to remember how he loved them.
He holds the picture, tracing the lines with shaking hands as Poppy wraps her arms around his shoulders. There’s a warm breeze through the open window next to them. Spring is coming, Poppy thinks. Everything is coming back to life again.