John sighed as he stepped out of the rented car. He had a week’s leave before his posting at McMurdo, and all he wanted to do was sleep. Try to forget about… everything, really. He grabbed two bags from the back seat. One was from the local wine store, and the other was from a bakery a few blocks over. He stretched once, then ambled up the walkway to ring the doorbell.
The sound of two sets of feet pattering up to the door made John smile. Nothing could compare to the enthusiasm of kids on a sugar high. Not even their mother, he mused, with a tired grin.
“Who is it?” A young girl cried out, the sound muffled by the thick door.
“The Easter Bunny!” he called back. A shriek of laughter came from inside, then the sound of a lock being turned. The door flew open and framed within were two blond haired, blue eyed hellions. Hair was escaping their braids in every direction, and their faces were flushed with excitement.
John mock scowled at them. “You know you aren’t supposed to open the door to strangers.” He had barely finished his sentence before both girls latched limpet-like to his legs. He quickly raised his arms to keep his burdens from being knocked from his hands.
The older one, who was about ten years old, just rolled her eyes and gazed up at him from his navel. “I recognised your voice, Uncle John. Besides, we saw your car out the window. Even if Claire really thought you were the Easter Bunny. She still believes in him, you know.” This was stated with all the weary disappointment an older sister could manage towards a younger.
“That’s quite enough, ladies.”
Although Mary Jones wasn’t loud, she had cultivated a commanding voice over her years in the Houston Police Force. Coming out of the house (making sure the screen door was shut against insects, something she repeatedly reminded her children about) she pried her girls off ‘Uncle John’ then gave him a hug as well. He pretended to stagger backwards.
“Geeze, Mary, gotten a little big haven’t you?” She let go, scowling, and punched him in the arm. He would deny to his last breath that it hurt.
“Let the yahoos have your groceries, John and come through to the back. Aaron already has the barbeque going, and almost everyone else is here.” As she took command of the situation (“But mommy, we’re amazons, not yahoos!” and “I wanna stay with Uncle John!”) John took the opportunity to scrutinize her. He had to admit, despite being almost six months pregnant, she looked beautiful. It made him a little wistful about their college years.
He followed her through the house and out the back door after finally relinquishing the plastic bags to the reluctant girls. Aaron waved from over by the barbeque, but didn’t break off his conversation. He and John got on well enough, but they weren’t friends the way John was with Mary.
It had been two years since the last time he had attended one of the Jones’ spring barbeques - since his last posting, at least. The backyard looked like it always did; the garden still struggling under Mary’s near-black thumb, the kids’ play area was in the same spot, toys were scattered about. The people mingling around looked familiar.
It was sort of nostalgic, but mostly it felt like home to John. Something he hadn’t been able to feel for a long time.
“John?” A small but capable hand rested on his shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
“No, just glad to be home, finally.”
It was easy to see how happy that made her. Although their interest didn’t last his first posting out of college, she had remained a fast friend, and made every effort to include him in her family.
“Good. I wish you would stay.” She cut him off before he could respond. “At least until you’ve recuperated.”
“I wasn’t injured, Mary. I’m healthy as an ox.” He turned his full smile on her and held out a deck chair. One of the couples that John could just barely place as neighbours were making their way over.
As his ex-girlfriend she was completely unfazed by his charm. “I wasn’t referring to a physical injury, John.” She couldn’t say more, now that the couple (the Bennett’s?) were hovering nearby, and she had to play the good host, but she really didn’t have to say more. John new that as a cop she had faced some of the same situations he had overseas. That understanding, more than anything, was what made him feel like he had come home.
Later, as he was wrestling with Claire and Corinne in the living room, the last of the guests were being subtly ushered out the door.
Corinne broke away first crying ‘uncle! uncle!’. She sat reclining against the sofa, gasping for air. John made a show of losing to Claire, and then sat her beside her sister. He flopped down on the floor in front of them, grinning from ear to ear and slightly out of breath.
The girls were unusually quiet, and when he looked up they were staring solemnly at him. “What’s up with you two?”
“Mommy says that you fight in a war.”
“Uh…” That wasn’t what he expected. As he watched, Corinne nudged Claire, who shot to her feet (but not without glaring) and ran out of the room.
“I just do what I have to.”
“I know. That’s what mommy said. That you went to fight so that people like us would be safe. That you do what mommy does here, but that it’s even more dangerous. She said,” and here the girl looked away, tears in her eyes, “that sometimes people die there, and that they get to be heroes. They get medals and big funerals.” Her mouth worked a few times but no words emerged, and John floundered. Kids were Mary’s specialty, not his.
Claire came back in grinning from ear to ear. At six and a half John felt it was a pretty good bet that she didn’t understand the subject of the conversation. He was floored by her words, however.
“We made this for you. ‘Cause, if you already have a metal, then you won’t hafta die to get one!” In the youngest Jones’ hand was a replica of a Purple Heart medal, awarded to those who were injured or who died in service. She pressed it into his hands and through a sudden mistiness in his eyes he could see that it was a gold foiled chocolate in the shape of a heart, with a scrap of purple ribbon crazy glued to the back.
He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t promise them he would be fine, because nothing in life was certain, and even less was certain when you were flying over hostile territory. Instead he reached out and pulled both of them to him, crushing them in his arms, and then tickling their ribs. They shrieked with laughter and tried to tickle him back. This was what made everything all right.