*Apologies, but this story is a WIP. I'm almost finished, just the last few chapters, but it's been sitting on my computer for far too long. I'm hoping by posting it will get my arse in gear to finish so I can move on guiltlessly to other projects. (It's approx. 20 chapters in length & will be about 35K when completed.) So fair warning!
The sound of the perimeter alarm drove Rodney McKay out of his basement and to the window at the front of his cabin. He wasn’t expecting a delivery today. It was Monday, and Mondays were his, as were Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesdays were solemn days meant for interacting with grocery deliveries and UPS drivers, and god forbid, trips into town. Tuesdays were expected though, he could prepare for them, so the alarm alerting him to the interloper was an intrusion out upon his day to day modus operandi.
He watched as the unwelcomed miscreant boldly lifted the rusted latch on his gate, and the sound of the squeaky hinges cut through the wooded silence, forcing Rodney McKay to protect his cloistered way of life.
“Hey!” Rodney yelled through the window, hiding behind the faded, dusty curtains.
The insolent intruder froze halfway through the gate, eyes wide with confusion and shock.
People for the most part left Rodney McKay alone. He knew of the rumors circulating about him in town, the whispered gossip and speculations, the blatant stares and pointing, but frankly, it didn’t register with him. He liked his seclusion, and liked that people avoided him and his property. It allowed him the freedom to do what he needed to get done without unwarranted interruptions. He chose this mountain so he could communicate with people on his own terms, and those interactions were few and far between, and only when necessary. So, the snot-nosed, waify kid with a full head of dark hair who ambled up his dirt driveway was a first for Rodney, and unbeknownst to him, his four years of living a simple, sequestered life was about to change forever.
The kid swallowed, then raised his fisted hand which contained a crumpled, dirt-smudged envelope. “I-I h-have...”
“I-I...” Rodney mocked his stutter. “Spit it out. I’m a very busy man.”
“I-I,” he took a deep breath, “I found this on my way home from school. My dad said I should bring it to you.”
“What is it?” Rodney asked, still out of sight, safely hidden behind the orange patterned curtains. The kid strained his neck trying to locate the source of Rodney’s voice.
“A l-letter addressed to Dr. M-Meredith R. McKay.”
“Did you steal it?”
“No!” He put his arms down, snapping his chin up at the insult. “I said I found it.”
“Sure, kid. Is this a dare? Your friends put you up to this? How much are you getting for opening the latch to my gate? What about knocking on my door? Bet that’s a big prize.”
“No. I’m not getting anything. No one put me up to it.” He muttered something else under his breath, but Rodney couldn’t quite hear it. He did manage to catch the word ‘friends’ in the mumble.
“Speak up, kid!”
“My name is J.J., not kid.”
“Well, that’s a stupid name,” Rodney said.
“At least it’s not a girl’s name!”
The kid had gumption; Rodney would give him that. “You’ve given me initials. They could stand for Judith-Joyce for all I know. And if it’s a nickname, that’s even worse.” Rodney was a firm believer in a zero-tolerance nickname policy, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he never had one—well he did have one in grade school, but he would never admit to it.
“What do you want?” Rodney snapped.
“I see the schools have done away with teaching conversation skills. What else aren’t they teaching you? Mathematics? Can you count? I’ll give you ten seconds to get off my property.”
“I can count!” The nuisance yelled back, but stayed rooted in place.
“Your comprehension skills are clearly lacking for your age. What are you five? Ten?”
“Geez, I’m seven.”
“And when I was seven, I was on my way to building nuclear bombs. Age is not an excuse.”
The kid’s eyes went wide again, his body stilled for a few seconds, then he dropped the letter and bolted back through the gate, racing down the dirt road until he was gone from Rodney’s sight.
Rodney waited a few more minutes to make sure he was truly gone and there was no one else waiting for him outside. He checked the cameras, angled in all directions on his property, and when he was positive he was alone, he unlocked the two locks and the deadbolt on the steel door, retrieving the letter he’d been waiting for since last week.
It wasn't often Rodney made the trek into town. Most of the supplies he needed he ordered online, and as far as food went, he had a weekly delivery from the local grocery store where he got the basics like milk, a few vegetables and the makings for sandwiches. Over the years, he'd gotten used to the ready-to-eat meals the military used, amassing a large number to stock his pantry, and when times got tough, he'd gladly munch on the MREs in favor of driving into the small, busybody town he used for an address to satisfy the U.S. government.
It was roughly a ten-mile death trap of a winding gravel road down the side of a mountain into town. It was treacherous and distracting enough to allow his anxiety to take a backseat while he concentrated on the road. ‘Town Days’ were a big deal for him. He wasn’t one for medication, they dulled his sharp mind, leaving him with slow reaction times, and the thing about the end of the world was that one never knew when it would happen. He preferred to work his way through his fits of hysterics with breathing exercises and the recitation of Pi in his head to however many decimals he could get to before he lost his concentration. It had gotten better over the years, working for the most part, but some days it didn’t and he couldn’t unlock the front door. Those days he banished himself to the basement—to his sanctuary—where he spent hours, sometimes days, with his research until he was ready to give the outside world a chance again.
Today, was a good day. He left his cabin without any pause, and once he made that decision to step out into the world, he was fine. He prided himself on how he concealed his affliction by being unassailable and contemptuous to everyone he met. It didn’t help his reputation, but then again, nothing would.
There were a few houses along the road, nestled back and hidden behind trees. Occasionally he would meet a neighbor on his journey, and they all shared the same terrified expression when they saw Rodney McKay's burgundy, 1998 Volvo wagon driving toward them, honking his horn and waving them out of his way.
That sense of survival from his neighbours transcended beyond Rodney’s car and to his person, so it was no surprise heads turned his way whenever he walked into Joey's Diner.
Sitting at the counter on the closest stool to the door, he pulled the daily newspapers toward him, checking to see if anything interesting was happening in the world.
"Dr. McKay," the young girl said from behind the counter as she poured him a coffee, and then glared at the two patrons whispering in the corner who were pointing in Rodney’s direction. He could never remember her name, ‘Joey’s’ niece or something related, but he appreciated how she tried to protect him from the harsh murmurs.
"Gracing us with your presence again?” she teased. “That's twice this month. If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were beginning to like us.”
"Please. I wouldn't have to be here at all if that sorry excuse for a post office kept regular hours or actually delivered my mail instead of dropping it in the road. What kind of federal office closes in the middle of the day? I tell you," he wagged his finger, "civil servants are the laziest sons-of—"
"Alfred had to attend to something personal," she said, cutting him off and sparing the rest of the diners from hearing his curses.
"Personal." Rodney snorted. "Well, isn't that nice. Wish we could all just have personal days. Some of us have actual work that needs to get done, and depend on letters and packages to be delivered to do that job. What kind of personal thing could close a post office, anyway? His IBS acting up again? I swear that man has no personal boundaries when it comes to his bowels."
"Funeral," she said, sadly. "His cousin up in Carson City passed away. Had to take his mama to the wake."
"Oh," Rodney said, choking on his coffee. "I suppose that's acceptable."
Someone in the diner laughed. Rodney turned to follow the obnoxious sound, but could only see the back of a head covered by a dusty baseball cap.
"Can I get you something to eat, Dr. McKay?" She brushed her red hair behind her ear, waiting for his order.
"Why else would I be here? It's not the company and it's certainly not the coffee." He glanced at the menu even though he knew what he wanted. "Roast beef, extra mustard, and none of that slaw. I mean it. None."
"How many times do I have to tell you? There's no—"
"You think I trust you? The nearest real hospital is—"
"Yes. I know," she said holding her hands up, "thirty miles."
"I could die in that time.”
"Yes, we know," the cook popped his head through the order window speaking at the same time as the girl.
Rodney heard the braying laughter again, and this time when he turned, he noticed the brown Carhartt jacket hanging next to the booth. The culprit must be a local, he thought. With their sweat-stained ball caps, love of durable, American workwear and pickup trucks, Rodney reserved some sympathy for the young people growing up in this hick town who were struggling with their sexual identity. God forbid someone chose tweed over canvas for a jacket.
Rodney scoffed at the stranger then opened the newspaper, glancing at the pages, continuing his mockery of the headlines while he waited for his food.
"Will this be to go, Doc?" she asked.
"What do you think?"
"I gotta ask," she said, packing up his food, throwing in a slice of coconut pie and some home brewed unsweetened tea. "Maybe one of these days you'll want to stay."
"Not likely." Rodney pulled out his wallet and threw down a twenty. It was the same every time. He never asked for change, but then he never asked for the pie either.
From his left he felt the presence of someone behind him. "Thanks, Angie," said a voice that was all nasal and sounded west coast, but with other places thrown into the mix. A tanned hand sticking out of the Carhartt placed some bills on the counter, then tapped it in a farewell.
"You're welcome, John. See you tomorrow. Tell your ol' man he still owes my uncle that game of chess."
The man tilted his hat, obscuring his face from Rodney, and then he was gone, out the door.
"Here you are, Dr. McKay. One roast beef on rye, extra mustard, and absolutely no slaw."
"Thanks, Angie," he said, mirroring the stranger and grateful for the help with the name—at least until next time when he forgot it again. "See you next month."
"Lord, help us." Angie smiled, revealing two deep dimples in her freckled cheeks.
As Rodney walked out the door he saw the man from the diner, at least the back of him, hop into an old, beat-up Bronco. Typical, Rodney thought, amused he was right about the west coast guess. He didn't recognize the vehicle—Rodney was more likely to recognize cars than faces—and something like that pile of junk would stick out amongst the over-sized dually trucks in this town. From the casual greeting Angie gave him, it sounded like he was a regular at the diner, so maybe the man was new to town, or possibly visiting family. Rodney hadn't realized he was staring until he heard the honk and watched the man drive by waving at him like an old friend. Rodney squinted to get a better look, but the sun beamed brightly maintaining the mystery behind the stranger.
Rodney was underground when the sensors surrounding his property tripped for the third time that week. With all of the animals this spring, he’d come to regret the sensors, but the tripwires were a small price to pay for his safety and peace of mind. He built his private sanctuary with a purpose in mind to protect his research and allow him the freedom to continue without catastrophic interruptions. It took years to get it where he wanted it, and the last and final installations were proving a bit temperamental.
He searched the cameras as he reset the sensors on his system, then did a double take when he saw something that looked nothing like a deer.
Cursing, he bolted through the doorway, pulling the lever to seal the heavy, metal door. He climbed the ladder rungs leading to the basement and up through the metal hatch, taking the basement wooden stairs two at a time, almost tripping on the tricky third step, and then he burst through the door into his dilapidated kitchen. Hitching the latch, he padlocked the door all within seconds.
“Hey!” he yelled out the window, huffing and out of breath, surprised to see the culprit back for more punishment. “Can’t you read, kid? It says ‘no trespassing’ everywhere on my property. It’s not like you could miss the signs. They’re posted every three metres!”
The kid shrugged, his thick, dark hair bouncing in the slight breeze, sticking up like he’d just woken up and jolted straight out of bed to come to Rodney's doorstep.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Oh.” Rodney frowned trying to count the days he’d missed. He used to lose track of time when he worked with the air force, projects would consume him and he wouldn't be able to account for days. But that was years ago, and apart from the power fluctuations he was experiencing with the new generator, he wasn’t working on anything that would explain the lost days, other than having nothing or no one to remind him when to take a break.
As he lifted the curtain to get a better look at the trespasser, he caught a whiff of himself and was horrified by the days of sweat that had built up on his body. He needed to move some clothes down to his lab space and shower more regularly while he lost himself in his work.
“What do you want?” Rodney yelled, then sniffed his armpit to be certain the stench was coming from him.
The kid clasped his hands together and bounced on his toes. He stretched his arms in front of him, crossing them as he looked down at his feet. “...really build a...?”
“What? I can’t hear you.” Rodney caught sight of his reflection in the window and didn’t recognize himself. A pale face underneath a week's worth of beard stared back at him. He definitely looked the part of all the rumors the townsfolk said about him.
“Did you really build a bomb?” the kid asked louder.
“Several.” Rodney was never one to lie, and especially not to children. It was how his parents had raised him, and as far as he was concerned, he was the smartest man on the planet. He turned out okay growing up with the philosophy that kids shouldn’t be coddled or lied to without good reason. The world was a scary place, and the quicker they learned that, the longer they would stay alive.
“Why?” Rodney shot back.
“Just because.” The kid shrugged again, placing his hands on the gate as he kicked at the dirt.
“Until you can come up with an educated answer, you don’t deserve to know. Stupidity and bombs don’t exactly mix, now do they?”
“I’m not stupid!”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“It’s not nice to call someone stupid!”
“And who told you that?" Rodney chuckled. "Your mother?”
The kid’s hands turned into fists, and Rodney recognized the look of a tantrum about to happen.
“Get out of here,” Rodney said, resigned to the notion of ending this before it went any further. “I’m not a nice man, and your mother wouldn’t want you hanging around my property.”
“My mother’s dead!” the kid yelled, then turned and bolted down the dirt driveway just like the last time.
There was a brief, yet painful moment, where Rodney’s guilt threatened his dark mood but he pushed it aside, letting it go. He didn’t have time to worry about nosy seven-year-olds and their feelings. Children had no business hanging around his property, and the last thing Rodney needed was a lynch mob from town making its way to his place if word got out a child was seen near his cabin. The rumors he’d heard about himself were not kind, and there was no need to add fuel to the gossip fires. He could only hope his sharp tongue finally scared the kid off for good.
The sound of incessant knocking pulled Rodney away from the arduous task of testing the new generator’s compatibility with his current electrical panel. It was finicky, drawing too much power and taxing the system beyond what it should be with no apparent reason. He was tired, and sweaty, frustrated beyond comprehension and the last thing he needed was the sound of someone knocking on his cabin door.
People never got the jump on Rodney. They never got close enough to the porch without him knowing, and no one ever made it to the door to knock. It was the reason he installed the sensors and trip wires all over his property, but with the installation of the new generator and the modifications he needed to make it run, the power had been on and off intermittently throughout the day.
Flipping the power switch, Rodney glanced to the monitor, cursing under his breath. He didn't recognize the man at the door, however, he did recognize the Carhartt jacket and the Bronco parked at the front of his gate.
“Cue the lynch mob,” Rodney mumbled, wiping his grease-stained hands on a rag.
There were many reasons why Rodney chose this property, and at the top of his list was how remote it was, and yet here he was with two visitors on his doorstep in less than a week. This cabin, this underground space, was his salvation, a place to retreat from the world when the world had failed him. He didn't want to interact with people unless he chose to do so. There were no casual invitations to his place like, 'How about that drink, McKay?' or 'Thought I'd check in on you. See if you needed help with that roof.' Everyone in the town respected the unspoken rules. Unconventional deliveries made their way up the mountain and out-of-town builders came and went, finishing things Rodney couldn't manage on his own, but no one ever asked what he was up to which meant he was happy to let their imaginations run wild. They stayed away from him and he tried his best to stay away from them.
The truth was, Rodney had given up on the world and the people in it. The fate of the earth lay in the hands of idiots, and while he had tried to prevent its destruction, his voice went unheard. There was a time when most considered Rodney an egomaniac, but those years were long buried in scientific journals and bad behavior from his past. He had learned the hard way that he wasn’t infallible. He was still somewhat of an egotist, but he knew all too well the fine line between the two terms.
He didn’t need this interruption today of all days. He should’ve pretended he wasn’t home, but the chance of meeting this stranger in town and having this conversation in public went well beyond Rodney’s delicate balance with the outside world. With a long, insufferable sigh, he unlocked the deadbolts and opened the front door. On his porch was a man Rodney had never seen face to face, and even though Rodney was bad with names and faces, he was certain he’d never forget the long nose, two-day old scruff and the half smirk like there was a secret hidden on his tongue that he wanted to share.
“What do you want?” Rodney said, lifting his chin, and barring the door with his body. The man was easy on the eyes but that was no reason to throw caution to the wind and invite him into his home. He wasn't hot like a few of his old colleagues, but if Rodney was into the west-coast-hair with a slouch persona, then he supposed the man was somewhat agreeable.
“Hi,” the stranger said, managing to turn a two-letter word into a long drawl. “I’m—I’m not sure what to say, here.”
Even though the voice was higher pitched than before, Rodney recognized it from the diner. It was a shame, really, so much potential in that face and body, yet not much going on upstairs. It was always the way with these handy-man types, which is why he'd long ago given up on the idea of finding someone he was attracted to who could carry a meaningful conversation with him. When the world ended, and it would, he would be perfectly content in his solitary sanctuary.
“Yes?” Rodney said, hoping to move along the conversation.
The stranger took a deep breath, then shoved a hand through his hair, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t usually do this kind of thing. I prefer to let people fight their own battles, but when it comes to my—”
“I’m a busy man, so if you could speed this up.” Rodney made a motion with his hand, rolling his eyes in the process. The stranger stilled, and Rodney wasn't blind to the clenching of his jaw.
“I’m going to need you to stay away from my kid,” the man blurted out in one breath. His eyes were hidden behind his mirrored sunglasses, but Rodney was certain they were hard like how his voice had turned.
“Your kid?” McKay’s voice went up a few notches. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“I’m John Sheppard.”
“And?” Rodney scoffed.
“And you threatened my kid.”
“I did no such thing.” The image of the kid and his unruly mop of dark hair popped into Rodney's head. Glancing his eyes upward to the strangely similar—yet more rakishly styled—hair, he put two and two together. "You've got your story wrong. I do my best to avoid..." He turned his lip up as he held his hand to his waist to indicate the size of a child. "And I certainly don’t make a habit of speaking to the little...” he held the curse on his tongue, “as much as I can help it.”
“You told my son you were building nuclear bombs, and going to bomb the town.”
“Well," Rodney folded his arms, "your son’s a liar.”
Sheppard was silent for a moment, taking a deep breath before leaning closer to Rodney. “Kids have some wild imaginations, and mine is no exception, but the word nuclear isn’t exactly in his vocabulary, especially when it’s paired with the word bomb!” The man pursed his lips together, taking another deep breath. “The last thing I need right now is my son waking up screaming in the middle of the night, thinking he’s going to burn to death in a flash fire!”
Rodney’s mind replayed the encounter of the kid with the initials, vindicated he was right and this Sheppard was wrong. He’d threatened a number of children on a number of occasions, but his kid wasn’t one of them, and Rodney was appalled by the accusation.
“I never threatened him." Rodney held his chin higher. "He asked if I knew how to a build bomb, which I do. And for the record," Rodney's voice raised an octave, "your son was trespassing on my property. Perhaps you should keep a leash on your brat to stop him from wandering places he shouldn’t!”
“Look,” the man said, shifting on his feet, and Rodney noticed the stranger’s fisted hands. He figured he was about ten seconds away from being punched in the face. “Now, I know J.J. is somewhat precocious, but he’s a kid, and kids are...curious, so I’d appre—”
“How about this?” Rodney stopped him, plastering on a fake smile as he gripped the door. “You tell your son to stay off my land, and I won’t call the cops the next time he decides to be ‘curious.’” Rodney slammed the door, locking the bolts into place. He took three deep breaths staying rooted to his spot. He trembled from the interaction, his heart racing from the idea of this Sheppard invading his space, threatening him for something he hadn’t done. It was all too familiar for Rodney, and just one of the reasons he lived the way he lived. He didn’t need this hassle, and he certainly didn’t want it.
Rodney stayed safely behind the door until he heard boots on the porch steps and the truck’s engine rumble down the road.
Rodney backed away from his laptop, aware his friend was getting up close and personal with the inside of his nose. “We can start simulations early next year. An unlimited source of power,” Rodney said, his voice filled with wonder and hunger. “I’m telling you, Radek, this is big. Like really big. This is the steam engine, the internet, the French fry big.”
Radek Zelenka wasn’t looking at the screen, his attention split between Rodney and what he was working on thousands of miles across the ocean. “Yes. Yes. Big.”
“Why do I waste my time with you when you don’t even listen to me?”
“Because I am only friend and despite my listening but not listening, you need someone to stroke your oversized ego.”
“If that were true, I definitely wouldn’t rely on you,” Rodney scoffed.
Radek was one of the few tolerable people Rodney had met while he was exiled in Siberia. Radek was there to further his career, while Rodney was there because he’d screwed up and an Air Force general took offense to Rodney’s abrasive manners. If Rodney hadn’t given up on the world, he might have joined Radek at his current job with CERN, debating in person rather than through a video feed.
“It is easy to wind you up.” Radek finally looked at the camera, smiling. “Never gets tiresome.”
“Ha. Ha.” Rodney folded his arms. “Did you look at the corrections I sent back? Your power distribution calculations were off. It wouldn’t have been easy to find for someone like yourself, but for me…” Rodney’s grin was smug if not calculating with the intention of baiting Radek into an argument. It had been awhile since they had a heated debate, but Radek sensed the trap, sidestepping around it.
“You say this isolation is self imposed, but I wonder if it is imposed upon you,” Radek said as he pushed up his wire-rimmed glasses. “Hard to say with that thing on your face. You should remove it before you venture out of your cave. People might mistake you for wild animal and shoot you. Who knew you could grow such a thing?”
Rodney rubbed at the hair on his face. It was the longest beard he’d ever grown, scraggly and thick with streaks of white throughout the brown. Since that Sheppard had rattled his senses, Rodney hadn’t ventured upstairs too often, only to meet the odd delivery person or to catch a couple of hours of vitamin D while he worked on the solar panels. He was comfortable underground with his walls and his research. Safe.
“You mock me, Radek, but when the world is faced with destruction, you’ll wish you had heeded my warnings.”
“If total world annihilation happens, I promise to let you get last words in. I wait for the day I hear you say, ‘I told you so,’ before I die in fiery inferno.”
“The least you can do is shield your equipment from EMP. Don’t be an idiot, Radek. I'll need you to help me save what's left of the world when this all goes down. And take my advice, stock up on food and water. Those MREs are surprisingly not bad.” He picked up a white plastic bottle with a black cap and black lettering with the word Soylent on it. “And this stuff, too. It tastes a little chalky but it's a full meal in a cup.” He took a sip, smacking his lips at the thick and gritty taste.
A beeping started, a sensor being tripped again. It had been a peaceful few days since Rodney tweaked the output on the arrays. There were no triggers from smaller animals, only larger ones and they were few and far between.
“What is that?” Radek asked squinting like he could see something in Rodney's lab.
“Just a sensor. Probably a deer or some other pest.” Rodney glanced to the tiny, black and white TV monitors, then cursed as he slammed the bottle on the counter. “Definitely a pest. Have to go.” Rodney closed his laptop before hearing Radek’s protests.
He made the trek upstairs, slower this time, his legs carrying him up the ladder rungs as he wondered if the kid was brave enough to open his gate, or would he mull around the other side of the fence waiting for Rodney to yell at him some more.
“I thought I told you I wasn’t a nice man!” He glanced out the window, tucked safely behind the curtains looking for the kid’s father. “Didn’t your dad tell you to stay off my land?”
The kid squared his shoulders and actually smiled. “My dad says you’re a jerk, but a ‘harmless ree-cloose.’”
“You don’t even know what recluse means,” Rodney scoffed.
“Then you underestimate me being harmless.”
“But you wouldn't hurt me.” The kid put his hands on the gate, lifting his chin. His head was tilted, and his mouth had turned up into the tiniest of smirks, like he dared Rodney to yell at him for the brave intrusion.
“You and I both know that's not true.” Rodney snorted.
“Not on purpose.” He blinked against the sunlight.
Rodney folded back the curtain and leaned forward so his face could be seen under the windowpane. Sighing, he shook his head. “No. Not on purpose,” he admitted. He moved toward the door, taking his time with the locks and when he got the door open, the kid had unlatched the gate. Rodney stood on the porch with his hands on his hips, making it clear he wasn't inviting him any further. He glanced down at the mud mat to a medium sized, yellow envelope. The front had ‘SV Elementary’ stamped across it. Knowing he would regret this, Rodney picked it up and opened it anyway.
After a quick perusal of the contents, his face held a smirk of its own. “You think I should be impressed with these grades?”
He shrugged, a habit Rodney began to find endearing if not troublesome for Rodney's prickly reputation. Rodney knew the kid's aloofness was an act, he could see he was terrified to come closer to the porch. His bravery was there, but he needed to work on his execution if he wanted to fool Rodney.
“Why are you showing me this?” He held up the slip of paper.
“I’m not stupid,” he said, then held his breath waiting for Rodney to spit out a biting remark.
“The only respectable grade is in P.E. The others are subpar.” Rodney frowned to emphasize how unimpressed he was.
“But I got 'below satisfactory' in gym.”
“Exactly,” Rodney said, genuinely smiling at someone for the first time in a long time.
“It’s ‘cause I’m too little,” he said, his voice lowering along with his head.
“No one cares about gym.” Rodney glanced down at the other grades on the report card. “You should care about that science grade. It’s deplorable. How do you expect to get through life skating by on a mediocre ‘satisfactory?’”
“My dad said it was good.”
"Good? And what does your dad do? Mop floors?"
"He's a pilot. Well, he used to be. Now he fixes things."
"A pilot, huh?" Rodney pretended to mull that over for a moment. "So, that lonely ‘above satisfactory’ means your math genes come from him, then?"
"He doesn't have math jeans, and his jeans are too big for me.”
Rodney fought the smile threatening to overtake his sour disposition. He doubted the kid even knew he’d made a joke, but it did the trick, making Rodney feel a warmth in his belly he hadn't felt in years. "Are you going to stand there in the UV rays all day, or you going to come up on my porch so I don't have to yell?"
He contemplated Rodney's request for a second, eyes darting from Rodney to the porch chairs to the dirt driveway.
"Suit yourself." Rodney turned to head back inside the cabin.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"What? Where was this rule weeks ago?" Rodney asked, his voice considerably higher to emphasize the irony. The kid shrugged again in response. "You want an introduction?"
He nodded, his head bouncing a little too fast for Rodney to follow.
"Rodney McKay. But you're going to call me Dr. McKay."
"Doctor?" He asked, and Rodney was certain his face paled a few shades.
"Yes, but not the kind you think." Rodney waved his hand in the air. "I don't practice any of that voodoo stuff."
"Jonathan Sheppard Jr. I can read, unlike you." Rodney held up the report card.
Sheppard Jr. opened the gate, and all but skipped up to the front porch sitting in one of the Muskoka chairs Rodney brought with him from Canada. "You can call me J.J. Everyone else does."
"I will not." Rodney sat beside him, resting the report card on his lap.
"But that's my name."
"Listen, kid, I'm only going to say this once, all the great ones had good, solid names. Nicolaus, Isaac, Albert, Rodney...no respectable person is called by their initials."
"My grandpa is."
"Oh, yeah? And who's your grandpa? J.R.?" Rodney chuckled even though the reference was lost on Sheppard Jr.
"No. Patrick Sheppard, but people call him J.P."
"Well, that many initials in one family is absurd. Please tell me your dad doesn't go by J.T."
"No. He just goes by John." The kid’s sneakers didn’t touch the floor, so instead, he swung them in the breeze. Rodney doubted this little terror could sit still for longer than thirty seconds.
"Well, at least there's a generation gap of normalcy."
"But a lot of people call him major," he said, doing a mock salute.
"So, you're an air force brat, huh?"
"I'm not a brat."
"Right." It explained why Rodney hadn't recognized Sheppard, and why he seemed new in town. He did know Patrick Sheppard, not well, but enough to know he was a retired Air Force colonel and one of the few who lived on this mountain. "You just move here?"
The kid nodded, still swinging his legs. "We moved in with my grandpa."
They sat for a few minutes, listening to the faint sound of the trucks on the highway that curved around the bottom of the mountain. Rodney didn't need an explanation as to why they had moved here. He could read between the lines. Edwards Air Force base wasn’t far, and there were many ex-military personnel living nearby enjoying their retirement. He wondered if his mom's death is what brought them here, and how long it had been since she passed. From the rawness of a few weeks ago when Rodney had put his foot in his mouth, he guessed it hadn’t been long enough.
"How come you live up here?" Little Sheppard asked, breaking Rodney’s reverie.
"I like it,” Rodney said, leaning back in his chair, admiring the view of being surrounded by trees and not houses filled with people.
"But you're all alone. Don’t you get bored?"
"I’m alone because I choose to be. And I don’t get bored. Boredom is for idiots."
The kid’s eyebrows shot up, eyes wide. "That's a bad word."
“Idiot is a perfectly acceptable word. Only idiots think it's offensive because, well…they’re idiots."
"My grandpa has to put money in a swear jar every time he says a bad word."
"How's it filling up?" Rodney laughed.
"I'll be able to buy a bike soon." He grinned.
"Why on earth would you want to spend your money on a bike? They’re death traps."
"I'm eight.” J.J. rolled his eyes. “Every kid my age wants a bike."
"Thought you said you were seven?"
"It's called a birthday, Dr. McKay. Duh."
"Oh." Rodney hid his pleasure at the use of his title. "Happy Birthday, I suppose."
"Whatever." He banged his heels on the legs of the chair.
"Did you have a party?" Rodney regarded J.J.’s face. His expression had gone stony, reminding him of his father when he’d shown up on Rodney’s doorstep, only with more freckles.
"With who? My dog?"
“Whom,” Rodney corrected.
"Never mind,” he said. “I'm more of a cat person," he added when he recognized the hurt in the little guy's voice. "Don't you have any friends?"
"The school year was almost over when we moved here." He shrugged, and Rodney started seeing the defensive pattern with the shrugs. Even his parents weren’t cruel enough to make him change schools late in the year.
"That sucks." Rodney felt a familiar pang in his chest. The only friend he had was a whiny, Czech scientist who lived on the other side of the world, and their relationship was tenuous at best, mostly professional with the occasional screaming match thrown in to keep things interesting. And as far as family went, he lost hope for his sister when he tried to convince her to prepare for doomsday and she in turn wrote him off as crazy.
“Is that all you have to say?” Rodney asked, clapping his hands on his thighs. “I see we’re going to have to work on your vocabulary along with improving your science education. Anything else you’re lacking in? What do you like?”
“My dad and I built a model race car, once,” he said, smiling. “That was cool.”
“Huh,” Rodney said. “That is pretty cool.”
“He doesn’t have much time anymore, though…” J.J. swung his legs, banging them against the underside of the chair this time.
“I’m certain we can build something bigger than that,” Rodney said, resisting the urge to ruffle the kid's hair.
“Pfft.” Rodney rolled his eyes. “So pedestrian. You need to think bigger than that. There are way cooler things to build than bombs.” When the kid’s eyes lit up, Rodney ignored the flutter it left in his stomach. This was a child, and Rodney didn’t like children, but there was something about his eager face and relentless charm that left him with an affectionate feeling. Maybe he felt sympathy for him having lost his mom at an early age as well. He understood how difficult it was to speak to a father who didn’t make time for him. Rodney would never admit that his alienation plagued him sometimes, he had his science and space, and that was all he needed, and if the kid would let him, he’d teach him that, too.
Rodney was a terrible host, he realized, then again, he didn’t get many eight year-olds at his place. He didn’t get anyone at his place, not ever, so this was as new to him as the young ruffian sitting beside him.
The sun was high in the sky, putting the time of day just around mid-day. It was warm, but there was a slight breeze rustling the leaves that kept it from being overly hot like it could be at this time of year.
“You want something to drink?” he asked.
J.J. eyed him warily, no doubt wondering if he should accept something from ‘the crazy man on the mountain.’ His curiosity won. “What do you have?”
He scrunched up his nose in disgust. “Kids don’t drink coffee.”
“They don’t?” Rodney was genuinely surprised to hear that. He was positive he drank coffee at J.J.’s age. “Come on,” Rodney said rising, ignoring the cracks and groans from his body. “Let’s see what I’ve got. I’m a little peckish, too. You eat lunch? Allergic to anything?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Let’s hope not,” Rodney mumbled under his breath, thinking about the angry air force major who had shown up on his doorstep ready to punch his lights out a few weeks ago.
He led J.J. into the kitchen and told him to hop up on a stool nestled around his uneven and worse-for-wear island. The kitchen was small, in desperate need of some upgrades, but at least it was clean and somewhat functional to where Rodney needed it to be for the time being. Looking in the fridge, he settled on the makings of two glorious sandwiches. “Turkey or roast beef?”
“I should’ve known.” Rodney shook his head, wondering if he needed to cut the crusts off the bread. He refrained, figuring J.J. was old enough to eat what was put in front of him and not complain. He contemplated this pipsqueak kid with worthy math skills and his inquisitive and fearless mind. It took a lot of guts to show up on ‘Mad McKay’s’ doorstep, and even more guts to come back after being yelled at, and your father warning you to stay away. It was either curiosity or loneliness, and McKay knew a thing or two about both. Curiosity, he could handle, but if it was loneliness the kid was experiencing, he’d have to seek answers elsewhere.
"I can tell you right now,” Rodney said, brandishing the butter knife like a conductor's baton, “hanging around my cabin isn't going to help that reputation of yours in the friend department." Rodney placed the sandwich on a paper towel, pushing it across the yellow, laminate countertop.
“Milk or water?” Rodney asked, leaning to look in the fridge. “Or I have some iced tea from Joey’s.”
Rodney was confused by his manners. Most children his age didn’t know a thing about being polite, and up until now, Rodney thought there was no exception.
“Thank you,” J.J. said, accepting the cold glass.
Rodney sat next to him, digging into his own roast beef sandwich and glass of iced tea. It was lucky he had fresh food at all. He hadn’t been to town since Sheppard came knocking, and his weekly delivery wasn’t scheduled for two more days. There were military rations, of course, but they were downstairs and out of reach for an impromptu lunch.
They sat in silence, munching on their fixings, and by the time Rodney had almost finished his lunch, little Sheppard was still on the first half of his turkey sandwich, sitting back with the look of a hundred thoughts running through his head.
“Spit it out,” Rodney said, and when J.J. stopped chewing, ready to obey, Rodney clarified. “Not the sandwich, you turkey. Ask what you want to ask. There’s no point being quiet around me.”
He seemed to contemplate Rodney’s words—no doubt they were a contradiction in how his father was raising him. Those generational, military-type families weren’t much for stimulating conversations. I’m sure they were a 'children should be seen and not heard' family, and Rodney was all for that ninety percent of the time, except when it came to the pursuit of knowledge.
Deciding if the risk of asking what he wanted would get him into trouble, Rodney watched as J.J.’s expression switched from trepidation to acceptance. The kid took a deep breath, setting his turkey sandwich down and went for it.
"Kids at my school say you murder children."
"Yeah,” Rodney said, taking a sip of tea like he expected the accusation. “Heard that one."
"They also say you're a vampire."
"Hello?” Rodney set down the empty glass. “I'm out in the sun all the time! That one is preposterous."
"That's what I told Callum Nichols," he said with a laugh. “But not that word...whatever it means.”
“Pre-pos-ter-ous. Meaning contrary to reason. Ridiculous.”
The kid struggled with the word but eventually got it.
"What about the one where I chop up women and hide them up the mountain?" Rodney wriggled his eyebrows, grinning.
"My dad says you don't seem like you have the const-st—consti…"
"Constitution,” Rodney finished for him, somewhat surprised he discussed the rumors from town with his father. “And your dad would be correct. Blood makes me squeamish. So do women for that matter." Rodney shuddered, carrying his glass to the sink, wondering what else they had discussed.
"What do you do up here?" J.J. took a hesitant bite of his sandwich. It was obvious Rodney had loaded it down with too much stuff, and was only eating it to be polite. Rodney would have to remember that for next time. Next time, he thought, startled by how that pleased him and what it meant for his prickly reputation that a floppy-haired kid could derail his hard work with a piece of paper.
"I do very important work up here." Rodney pulled J.J’s untouched sandwich half toward him, removing the lettuce, tomato, chutney and whatever else he’d thrown on there, leaving only the bread, cheese, turkey and a little bit of mayo. “Better?”
J.J. nodded, smiling around a mouthful. After he swallowed, he asked, "Do you build bombs?"
"Unibomber McKay, right?" Rodney chuckled, sitting back in the chair. J.J. obviously didn’t get the reference, but he laughed at the crazy-eyed face Rodney made.
"I've heard that one, too." Rodney took a deep breath, closing his eyes. Out of all of the rumors, he supposed that one hurt the most. It was one of the reasons he had abandoned his world. Rodney could make weapons, very powerful, dangerous weapons, better than anyone else on the planet, but when the wrong people wanted to use those weapons for the wrong reasons, Rodney couldn't bear the responsibility of having a hand in so much tragedy and destruction. Despite his doomsday bravado, Rodney wanted to preserve life, amplify it by making it better for the disenfranchised, and extend protection from what he knew was inevitably coming. It was why he was up here alone with his research.
"No," Rodney sighed, smiling sadly, "no bombs, and you really need to move on from this obsession. Sorry to disappoint, kiddo, but I study space."
"Cool." J.J. grinned eating the last of his sandwich.
Rodney watched J.J. disembark from the stool, taking his glass to the sink like Rodney had. There was no disappointment there, and no recognition of Rodney's temporary melancholy, but he did light up at the word space, and that was, to Rodney's surprise, pretty damn cool.
Rodney woke the next morning with a horrible, sinking feeling in his gut. Although yesterday’s interaction with the kid had been remarkably pleasant and, dare Rodney say, fun, he’d invited a child into his home and fed him a meal. At the time he didn’t think anything of it; a harmless gesture filled with good intentions. However, the more he mulled it over, the more the rumors from town pressed upon him. He hadn’t asked J.J. if his father knew where he was, and looking back, he realized that had been a colossal mistake. J.J.’s father seemed like a serious man despite his initial aloofness, and Rodney knew all too well the attitudes of most military men. The last thing he needed was a pissed off, misinformed, intolerant asshole on his doorstep worried about the virtue of his child.
The knot in Rodney’s stomach grew by the hour, and even his beloved coffee started to taste rancid on his tongue. He needed to nip this in the bud before it blew up egregiously to the point where it couldn’t be contained.
Grabbing his keys, he locked up his place and as he turned from the door he heard the rumblings of an engine coming up his dirt driveway. The gray-green Bronco slowly rolled to a stop in front of his cabin, and as J.J.’s father stepped out, Rodney waited in the shadow of his porch, swearing under his breath.
Sheppard's face was politely schooled, giving nothing away as he shoved his hands in his jeans’ pockets, casually strolling toward Rodney’s front gate. As much as Rodney wanted to run inside and hide, there was no way he could unlock his door before Sheppard could get his hands on him. The only thing he could do was square his shoulders and face the inevitable confrontation.
“McKay,” Sheppard said, resting his forearms on the gate, hand suspiciously close to the latch.
“Sheppard?” Rodney said, trying to keep his voice from cracking by changing his intonation to disguise it. There was an uncomfortable pause between the two of them, long enough that Rodney catalogued things in his reach he could use in self-defense.
“Look,” Rodney said, waving his hands more than was necessary, “it won’t happen again. I’m sorry. Your son just showed up on my doorstep with a relatively impressive report card and I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.”
Sheppard frowned, shifting on his feet, then held up his hand to stop Rodney’s rambles. “McKay,” he interrupted, “are you always this high-strung?”
“Ah, yes. Yes I am.”
Sheppard laughed, straightening up, pointing to the latch for permission. Rodney nodded, watching strong arms lean over the gate and open it with the grace of a man who knew what he always wanted. He tried not to stare at the way Sheppard’s hips swayed as he walked up the steps, stopping a few feet in front of him.
“I’m the one who should be doing the apologizing,” Sheppard said with a smirk.
With eyes wide, Rodney said, “You? Whatever for?”
“I want to apologize for J.J. showing up here yesterday and interrupting your day.”
“He told you?”
“We don’t keep secrets. I asked where he’d been all day, and he mentioned your name even though we had discussed the situation. You expressed your view about his trespassing, and I want you to know, I’ve had another talk with him about respecting people’s wishes. He won’t bother you again.”
“Oh.” It shouldn’t have hurt—it was what he wanted—but the disappointment surprised him. When he felt this way in the past, self-preservation was first and foremost, and he’d always taught himself to be quick to bluster, smarting back while he put up his practised defense mechanisms. Only this time, nothing was ready on the tip of his tongue.
Sensing Rodney’s despair, Sheppard countered. “Unless you...”
“No, no. It’s probably for the best,” Rodney said, looking at his feet.
“And why’s that?”
“You know,” Rodney raised his chin, “the whole ‘Madbomber McKay.’” He half smiled, lacking the decorum to hide the resentment.
Sheppard’s mouth turned up, and he chuckled again. “Personally, I’d go with the evil, mad-scientist schtick instead. Way more cool.”
In that moment, Sheppard sounded just like his son, and Rodney’s shoulders relaxed as his own smile turned genuine. “Well, I am a genius.”
“So my son tells me. He also tells me you taught him a few things about space and mentioned a telescope?” Sheppard asked, shoving his hands back in his pockets.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. He seemed interested and I get carried away. Sorry about that.”
“He also said you were Canadian.” Sheppard’s teasing drawl was rather endearing, but Rodney couldn’t help his eye roll as Sheppard rocked on his heels.
“Ha-ha,” Rodney said.
“Look,” Sheppard said, “I made a few calls and checked up on you—”
“He’s my kid, McKay.”
“Right. Of course. And?”
“And apparently you were a big hotshot in the world of astrophysics, and other sciency circles.”
“It’s a word.”
“Um, I’m certain it isn’t.”
“Would you let me finish?” Sheppard raised his eyebrows waiting for Rodney and when he nodded, Sheppard continued. “For whatever reason, you gave it up for a simpler life out here.” He held up his hands as Rodney started to protest. “I can respect that choice, no need to explain it to me, all right?”
Rodney looked at his feet, feeling the pang of those memories of the ‘circles’ he used to run in, and if this man, smelling of sawdust and pine, knew the extent of Rodney’s reasons for leaving, he wouldn’t let J.J. in the same town as Rodney.
“Okay,” Rodney said with his head still bowed.
“I don’t mind if J.J. hangs out here, especially if he’ll learn a thing or two, I just don’t want him to become a nuisance. He’s been through a rough time. The move hasn’t been easy on him, but for some strange reason he likes you.”
“He does.” Sheppard chuckled.
“Yeah. Can’t imagine why. You’re kind of a jerk.” Sheppard was smiling, and that smile left Rodney with a rush of warmth so very different than the one he felt with J.J. yesterday.
“Well,” Rodney said tilting his chin up, hoping his face wasn’t turning too red, “as far as little brats go, he’s not too terrible.”
Sheppard laughed again, and the resemblance to his son was uncanny. “How about we work out a schedule?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Believe me, it is, or he’ll be here everyday and never leave.” Remembering J.J.’s comment about his father not having time for him anymore, Rodney felt defensive on his behalf. He wondered when he'd started thinking of him as J.J. and not just 'the kid' anymore.
“It’s not a problem, really,” Rodney said.
“It is when his chores start going by the wayside.”
“Chores? Who are you, Pa Ingalls?” Rodney snorted.
Sheppard pulled his hands out of his pockets, folding his arms and puffing out his chest. Rodney had to admit it was an admirable, well-defined chest hidden behind dark green flannel, and Rodney wasn’t intimidated by it at all. Not in the slightest.
Sheppard gave him a pout of disapproval before reaching out to shake Rodney’s shoulder. “McKay, I’m trying to do you a favor.” The hand was warm and solid, and it had been too long since he’d let someone willingly touch him. He wanted to flinch, run away and bolt his door, but something about Sheppard drew him in, making him want to lean into the touch. From this close, he could see the gold flecks in Sheppard's hazel-green eyes made greener by his shirt, and when Sheppard licked his bottom lip, Rodney’s eyes followed that tongue, causing his skin flush with heat.
“J.J. needs to help his grandfather in the mornings. We’re renovating the house, and the new roof needs to get done.” Sheppard patted Rodney’s shoulder twice before dropping his hand.
“Well, okay, then,” Rodney said, flustered and still unsure, his knees suddenly weak. Even if it was a lie on Sheppard’s part, it was a good lie designed to give Rodney some control again. “I’m not much of an early riser anyway...late nights and all, but lunchtime is fine. If anything, it’ll remind me to eat. Shall we say Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays? See how that goes? But it’s strictly a working lunch. I know where that elementary school ranks in the country, and believe me, its academic standards are mediocre at best.”
“Fair enough,” Sheppard said. “And if he gets to be too much, let me know. Or send him home. We don’t live too far, just down the bend a mile back.” Sheppard thumbed a hand over his shoulder, then pulled out his phone. “Maybe I should get your number.”
Staring at the cell phone in Sheppard’s hands, Rodney couldn’t think past the long fingers and the calloused palms of a man who worked with his hands for a living, and how he was exchanging phone numbers with such a man.
“Oh, yes, of course. I don’t have a cell phone, though. Landline,” he apologized, then recited his digits.
Sheppard raised his eyebrow at that. “No cell phone?”
“Never needed one up here, too many encryption problems with them. Until I can find the time to reprogram my own, I stick to the hard lines and such. Besides, cell towers and satellites will be the first things to go.” He was rambling again, but couldn’t stop himself even though his crazy shined through like a beacon.
“First to go?”
“Oh, you know,” Rodney waved his hand in the air, “when the power goes out. Storms and such.” Sheppard looked at him warily, but Rodney believed he was convincing enough to cover his tracks.
“Right.” Sheppard dug his wallet out, passing Rodney his card. He expected a USAF business card, but it was a plain, white card with black text, displaying only Sheppard’s name, phone number and a generic email address. “If you need to reach me,” he said.
“No longer in the air force?” Rodney asked. He never had the common sense not to pry, and the dark look on Sheppard’s face meant he should have kept his mouth shut. “It’s just that your son said you were a pilot and a major, so I assumed…”
“Oh.” Rodney let his exclamation hang in the air leaving only the pinging sounds of the cooling engine of the Bronco.
“Well, anyway,” Sheppard said, hitching a thumb toward his truck, “I should be going. Don’t want to keep you from where you were heading.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” It seemed risky to mention he’d been on his way to find Sheppard, there was no need to ruin their tenuous truce by volunteering that information.
On the way to his truck, Sheppard turned back to him, tilting his chin to the wind, making his hair ruffle in the breeze. Rodney’s heart fluttered at the image. “If I’m Charles Ingalls,” Sheppard grinned, “does that make you Mr. Edwards?”
“Very funny.” Rodney’s heart pounded in his chest.
“You going to dance a jig with my kid or teach him how to spit? Is this the ‘Little House on the Mountain?’”
“Oh, you’re a riot. Were you saving that one up, or did it take your brain that long to think of a decent comeback?” Rodney knew where J.J. got his charm and even his wit. John Sheppard was nothing like Rodney had thought him to be. He wasn’t like the air force personnel he’d worked with, and in less than twenty-four hours two Sheppards had worked their way into his life more than anyone in the town had in years.
“Hey, McKay?” Sheppard said as he opened the truck door.
“Just...” he sat in the seat, “...thanks.” Sheppard shut the door and had the engine started before Rodney came back to his senses. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had given him a heartfelt ‘thanks.’ Usually the word was filled with sarcasm or even trepidation, and never had that one simple word left Rodney speechless.
“You’re welcome,” he found himself whispering, but the truck was long gone, kicking up dirt in the road.
Sheppard must have had a long talk with his son about what was expected of him during his visits to ‘Dr. McKay’s.’ Gone was the aloof, daring young boy, and in his place was a pod child slightly resembling Village of the Damned circa 1960. He was helpful, polite and only spoke when he was spoken to, and if this was how their visits were going to go, it was only a matter of time before J.J.’s hair turned snow white and he started tapping into Rodney’s brain, making him do things against his will.
The pod-kid sat on his stool, back straight with hands clasped in his lap, and when his legs started to swing, banging against the kitchen island, he stopped them with a jolt, eyes wide staring at Rodney.
“Okay,” Rodney said, slamming the butter knife on the counter. “What the hell is this? Who are you and what have you done with the fearless brat who unlatched my gate?”
J.J.’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
“Yes. Yes.” Rodney waved his hand. “I said a bad word. But you’re seriously freaking me out. Did your dad tell you to be on your best behavior?” J.J. bit his lip, unsure what to divulge. “Well, guess what? Your dad’s not here, so screw that. I want the other kid, okay?”
“I’m supposed to be good, or I can’t come anymore,” he hesitated, and then his face scrunched up like he was in pain as he mumbled, “sir.”
“Sir?” Rodney snorted. “Although that is appealing in certain circles, formalities like that have no place in my home. Got it?”
“Grandpa said I’m to call you sir.”
“Well, he’s not here either, and I thought I told you to call me Dr. McKay, or if you’re really brave, you can call me Rodney.”
“Okay, Dr. McKay.”
“All right, then. And stop freaking me out. Swing your legs, ask stupid questions, explore.” Rodney circled his hands, then stopped mid-air. “But don’t open that door under any circumstances.” He pointed to the wooden door off the kitchen with the padlock safeguarding his life’s work. “I mean it. That’s the only rule I have. You can do whatever you want up here. Touch whatever you want, destroy anything in this vicinity, but never, I mean never, open that door. This is non-negotiable, and a complete deal breaker, and not to mention I can come up with some pretty creative ways to make you regret—”
“Geez, I get it.” J.J. rested his elbows on the counter, slumping over and looking like a exasperated eight-year old should.
“Well, good. Because I’m not kidding,” Rodney said, picking up the butter knife and waving it at J.J. before cutting the sandwich in front of him.
“What’s down there?”
“None-of-your-business is what’s down there. But if you must know, it’s my life’s work. Years of research. And don’t get curious about it, either. It’s off limits.”
J.J. let out a frustrated groan, shoving his hands through his unruly hair. “Okay.”
“Fine. Eat,” McKay said, shoving the plate and the basic turkey sandwich in front of him. “I have ice cream for dessert. Kids like ice cream, right?”
“Duh.” J.J. picked up his sandwich and Rodney sighed with relief knowing his brain was safe from any future pod-children.
Rodney sat beside him, digging into his own roast beef concoction. “So, I was trying to remember,” he said around a bite of bread and meat, “what I liked to do when I was eight. Although, let’s face it, the things you probably like and what I liked are vastly different. I was on my way to higher education and thinking up concepts you couldn’t possibly imagine. I was labeled a genius before I could walk, and well...I do remember video games were key. I wasn’t so much into the gaming itself, but what was inside the consoles.” He held his hands up forming a box. “Two days after Christmas I had my Atari torn apart to figure out how that sucker worked. It was the last time my parents ever bought me anything new.” Rodney glanced down at J.J. realizing his ramblings were going in one ear and out the other, so he changed tactics. “How would you like to build a computer? I have enough spare parts laying around. I doubt we’d need to order anything new.”
J.J. had a mouthful of sandwich, but he stopped chewing with his mouth hanging open as he stared at his plate.
“Do you have a computer?” Rodney asked, second-guessing his stupid idea. The kid was eight, didn’t all kids have their own computers these days?
J.J. bounced in his seat, shaking his head enthusiastically, and when Rodney saw the fist pump, he knew he’d hit the mark.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park, you know. I expect you to do all of the work, well most of it anyway. Your father might take issue with you using a soldering iron. I was going to suggest a rocket, but that seemed a bit cliché. And a solid understanding of how computers work is the foundation to building a successful scientific education. If you succeed, I might be able to pull some strings and get us an inside tour of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab...which will take care of the rocket portion of your learning. And if you really exceed my expectations, maybe aerospace camp next summer—provided your dad agrees?” Rodney wasn’t sure where the thought of future plans had come from. This was their first ‘learning lunch’ which had every potential to end in disaster, so he shouldn’t be making promises, especially without speaking to Sheppard first, but Rodney had the contacts to make it happen, and if it was a money issue, he had plenty of that to spare, too.
J.J. munched dutifully to get the morsel of food swallowed with the difficulty of a closed up throat. His cheeks had turned red, and his bottom lip trembled as he fought the tears that wanted to be shed. Finally, with a wobbly voice, he said, “My mom wanted me to go to camp.”
Rodney took one look at him, and his heartstrings tugged somewhat harder than he thought possible. “There’s no crying in science,” Rodney said, taking pity on J.J. and his overwhelming response. “Eat up, so we can get to work. I’ll show you what I set aside last night.”
Once he’d finished his sandwich, J.J. cleared his plate then asked, “Do I get to keep it?”
“Of course you get to keep it. Anything you build here is yours.”
“I don’t have a computer. My dad says I don’t need one yet.”
"Well, I don't want to bad-mouth your dad in front of you, but your dad is wrong. Every kid these days needs a computer. It's a fact of life. Progress doesn't wait for dads who deny futures, and the sooner we get you learning about the intricacies of motherboards, the sooner we can move ahead with so much more."
"Like what?" J.J. asked.
"Whatever you want," Rodney said, then raised his finger when he saw the word form on J.J.'s mouth, "except that. No weapons. Your brain is the only weapon we'll be working on. Capiche?"
"What does that mean?"
"Just nod your head in agreement. You have a long way to go to reach an acceptable level of intelligence, but we'll get you there." He tapped J.J.'s temple. "You have the building blocks, you just need some finessing."
"My mom was really smart," J.J. said, looking at his feet as he kicked the rung on the stool.
"Well, you had to get it from someone. From what I can tell, all you got from your father is his ridiculous hair and your affinity for the shrug."
J.J. patted his hair, trying to flatten it. "When I was little," he said, like he was older now, and after losing a parent, Rodney supposed it was true, "the headmaster at my school told my parents my hair was too long. My mom would use the clippers and shave my head but then it’d stick up all over the place. She’d say bad words about my dad.” J.J. smiled like it was a secret.
“That’s a cruel and unusual punishment for a kid, but then I never went to a private school,” Rodney volunteered. He filed that slice of information away, wondering how someone like Sheppard, on an air force salary and drove a beat up Bronco, could afford private school.
“S’okay. My dad would take me for ice cream when she finished. He said the same thing happened to him when he was my age, but he didn't get ice cream.”
Rodney ruffled J.J.’s hair. “Looks like you’ve gone a long time without the clippers.” Rodney realized his mistake when he said it, and wished he could take it back.
J.J. looked down at his hands, hiding his face from Rodney. He was at a loss as to how he was supposed to deal with kids and grief. It was obvious things were too raw for J.J., and even though it seemed like he wanted to, they weren’t at a place where J.J. was ready to talk about missing his mom.
“When we moved here,” J.J. said, “my dad said I could grow it. He said no one would care about my hair."
"Well, kiddo, as you can see," Rodney rubbed at his balding head, "I'm envious of all that hair, so I say love it and let it grow before you end up like me."
J.J. started to giggle, which was infectious and before long they were both laughing at Rodney's receding hairline, making faces at each other to get the other to keep laughing.
"All right," Rodney said, "now that I've fed and watered you, I think your brain is ready for nourishment." At that moment, a raucous clap of thunder erupted and J.J. froze in his seat, terror evident in his eyes.
"It's just a little thunder," Rodney said, but J.J. was evidently shaken, so Rodney took charge. "Don't like thunderstorms, huh? I didn't when I was your age, either." Rodney put his dish in the sink and gently took J.J.'s hand, guiding him toward the window.
"They used to terrify my sister and me. All that booming and flashing lights, who could sleep or concentrate when it seemed like the world was falling apart, right?"
J.J. hadn't said a word, gripping Rodney’s hand, and his face was paler than it should have been. He listened though, which was a good sign.
"My mother got us books from the library,” Rodney said, “and we read them together about how and why thunderstorms happen, and voila! Once I understood it, no more fear." He smiled, looking down at J.J. who wasn't convinced. "Scientia potentia est, which translates to 'knowledge is power,' and that, my young neophyte, is how we should all live our lives."
By now, the lightning had started and the thunder booms were louder as the black clouds circled around the mountain. If Rodney remembered his clouds correctly, they were cumulonimbus clouds, which meant hail was likely to follow and sure enough, he heard the tick-tick sound against the windows as the hail began.
"Now, I'm no meteorologist, but I know enough about Earth's atmosphere to give it a go. You think you can handle learning about all this?" Before J.J. could answer, Rodney's phone rang, piercing through the cabin and making them both jump. "The phones still work!" He patted J.J.'s shoulder before moving to answer it.
"McKay," Rodney answered. It was an old, pea green phone, attached to the wall with a dial wheel that always worked even without electricity.
"McKay!" A harried voice said on the other end of the line. "Is J.J. still there? Is he okay? I'm coming soon, just got stuck in town at a job."
"Sheppard?" Rodney asked, his voice calm and serene compared to John's on the other end.
Rodney put a hand over the receiver. "It's your dad," he whispered to J.J. who promptly rolled his eyes, but then another clap of thunder sounded, rushing J.J. away from the windows toward Rodney's side.
Rodney held the phone out for him.
"Hi," J.J. said. Rodney didn’t know what their conversation entailed, but J.J. answered with short clipped words, and when he said, "I'm okay. Dr. McKay is going to teach me about thunder," Rodney couldn’t hide his smile. J.J. listened for a few breaths then sighed, handing the phone back to Rodney. "He wants to talk to you."
"I apologize," Sheppard was saying before Rodney got the phone to his ear. "I should have mentioned he’s not great with thunderstorms. Just tell him I'm on my way, okay?"
"Sheppard," Rodney interrupted. "We're fine. No need to rush. He's handling it like a champ—that is the proper term, right? I'm not much for sports analogies, but J.J. is fine, no freak outs here.” Rodney wrinkled his nose at J.J., making a hand signal around his temple. “And I was about to tell your son how my cabin is equipped to handle lightning and thunderstorms. What, with all my lightning rods set up around the property, the electricity will dissipate harmlessly through the underground conductive grid. In fact, it'll charge my generator for months—"
"McKay!" Sheppard yelled to shut him up and it worked. Rodney fell silent. "He's really okay?" Sheppard’s voice was soft and somewhat fond, Rodney thought.
"He is," Rodney said, looking at J.J. who had the beginnings of a smile. "I'll drive him home after the storm passes. Believe me, he’s safer here than anywhere in town. My property is self-sufficient."
There was a long pause on the end of the line, then Sheppard cleared his throat. "Thanks, McKay."
"Oh," Rodney said. "You're welcome?"
Sheppard chuckled into the phone, then disconnected the call.
The days rolled into weeks and Rodney McKay discovered he didn't mind kids all that much. Well, smart kids. Actually, one kid in particular who was rather bright and inquisitive and most of all funny.
“Well?” Rodney said, once he finished the last of the lasagna lunch dishes.
They were halfway done with the computer, working on it between other small projects and experiments. J.J. was learning more than any kid his age would in school, and Rodney was proud of their progress. He looked forward to his days with J.J., who had become a regular part of Rodney’s routine. He shopped for food on the days he had free, planning their hours together, thinking up creative ways to teach new things and Rodney even made his cabin more eight-year-old friendly with an Xbox for the days they needed ‘brain breaks.’
“You think that circuit board we worked on yesterday will power up, or did you fry another one?” Rodney leaned against the sink as he dried his hands.
“It'll work!” J.J. said. “My hands are steadier than yours. Grandpa says I could be a pilot, but dad says I'd be better as a surgeon.”
“What?” Rodney said, putting his hands on his hips. “You’ll do no such thing. You are not wasting your intellect on that voodoo stuff, and you're certainly not going to damage it seeking cheap thrills in death machines. When I'm through with you you'll be writing your own ticket to any worthy college in the country.”
J.J. rolled his eyes at him, something he did often when Rodney talked about his higher education. He'd given up explaining that he was only eight when Rodney would list off all the breakthroughs he accomplished by J.J.’s age.
“Don't roll your eyes at me, little Sheppard.” Rodney raised his finger, pointing it in J.J.'s face over the island. “You pretend like you don't care, and act like you're not interested in your future, but you came to me seeking knowledge.”
“It was a dare.”
“It was not.”
“Was not!” Rodney countered. “Lies, little man, lies.”
A voice cleared on the other side of the screen door from the porch. “You calling my son a liar, McKay?”
Startled, Rodney and J.J. looked up at the sound of the voice interrupting their banter. Weeks ago, Rodney would have been appalled someone could sneak up on his property without his knowledge, but the Sheppards had weaseled their way into his life in a comfortable way, easing some of his paranoia. He wondered how long Sheppard had been there listening to their conversation. Rodney was still apprehensive around Sheppard, but it was mostly because he hadn’t figured him out yet. Usually he discarded people upon first meeting, classifying them as a ‘waste of time,’ but Sheppard had never quite made it into that category even though Rodney had strived to put him there.
“Not a liar, only that he's telling lies,” Rodney said, turning back to the sink to hide his flushed cheeks.
J.J. sighed. “Why are you here?”
“Pardon me?” John said, still standing on the other side of the door.
“I think he means you're early.” Rodney looked at his watch to confirm Sheppard was an hour early.
“Can I come in?” Sheppard asked.
“Yes, of course,” Rodney said, waving him in as he took a deep breath. The sight of Sheppard in his cabin made him nervous. He filled the spaces making it smaller than what it was, unsettling Rodney’s surroundings. He tripped over words, hating how his stomach flipped when Sheppard smiled at him.
“S-something to drink?” Rodney asked, pulling at his T-shirt, fanning it to get some air.
“No, thanks,” John said, walking toward the island where J.J. sat. “I have to make a run into Porterville and thought I'd check if J.J. wanted to come.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, hiding his disappointment. He had a new video game he wanted to show J.J., a reward for working so hard, and when J.J. started to protest, he felt victorious until he saw the brief, pained look in Sheppard’s expression.
“You should go,” Rodney said to J.J. He couldn’t begrudge Sheppard wanting to spend time with his son. “I have things to do. I always have things to do, and this way I can get to them.”
“Do I have to?” J.J. asked his dad.
“You don't have to, no,” Sheppard said, ruffling J.J’s hair. “You can stay with Dr. McKay if it's okay with him.”
“Why can't he come?” J.J. asked.
Rodney’s stomach clenched at J.J.’s words, at the idea of leaving the sanctuary of his cabin to head into the city. He wasn’t prepared for the impromptu excursion. It took days to build up the courage to make that drive, and then there was the problem of sitting in the confines of Sheppard’s truck for hours, next to the man who frequented his dreams as of late.
Glancing at the thermostat, Rodney wondered if it was warm enough to put on the air conditioning.
“That's a great idea,” Sheppard said. “How about it, McKay? We can grab a bite to eat, maybe even see what movies are playing?”
“Yes!” J.J. shouted, pumping his fist.
Rodney rarely went into the 'city' and if he did, he planned his route and his stops meticulously for hours. He went in and went out, never stopping just for the sake of browsing or shopping, or god forbid, people watching to feel like a part of the world for a day. He couldn’t do it.
“No, I couldn't possibly—”
“You have to!” J.J. said from his chair, eyes imploring while he glanced from his dad back to Rodney.
Moving to stand in front of Rodney, Sheppard knew he was about to turn down the offer. He leaned in while Rodney held his breath. They were close, yet Sheppard showed no sign of backing away from Rodney.
“I can’t—” Rodney tried to move but was encumbered by the sink.
Sheppard clutched Rodney’s shoulder, conveying that if he denied his kid his happiness Rodney would be a heartless bastard. But Rodney was a heartless bastard, he knew it, and everyone else did except that kid with the hopeful smile and the fearless magnetism who drew Rodney in, making him want to be worthy of his veneration.
“Don’t fight it, McKay,” Sheppard mock whispered, “he’s a master at manipulation.”
“Gee,” Rodney said with a frown, “I wonder where he gets it.”
Sheppard laughed in triumph, wandering toward the workbench with the computer parts strewn across it.
He could do this, Rodney thought, breathing deeply. He could be the brilliant man J.J. heralded him as instead of the freak everyone pegged him to be.
“Fine,” Rodney sighed, wiping his clammy hands on his pants, “but I get to pick the movie.”
“Kid friendly,” Sheppard said.
“Yes, of course. What do you take me for?”
“I'm just saying,” Sheppard said, his voice higher as he raised his shoulders. “You’re having him build a computer. I think age appropriate activities are beyond your skill set.” He picked up a processor card socket, holding it up to the window.
“Only because you won't buy him one,” McKay snapped back.
“Because he doesn't need one,” Sheppard said between gritted teeth.
“Every kid needs one.” Rodney joined Sheppard at the bench, grabbing the delicate part out of Sheppard’s grasp. “Don’t touch, Mr. Grabby Hands. These are static sensitive.”
“That’s a myth,” Sheppard said.
“It is not.”
“I’m pretty sure it is,” Sheppard said, the corner of his mouth turning up into a grin.
“And how would you know? I doubt you know how to turn on a computer, which is probably the reason you won’t let him have one.” Rodney stood toe to toe with Sheppard, leaning closer as his diatribe continued. “It's borderline abuse at this point. What kid his age doesn't have a computer or some kind of electronic device?”
“Well, excuse me if I want J.J. to have a well-rounded childhood experience that isn't stuck behind a screen! He'll have plenty of that when he's older. I want to talk to my son, McKay, and share things with him while I can see his smiling face. I don’t want to see his hunched-up form connecting with ones and zeroes rather than me.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, withdrawing his argument. It was more than his dad ever said about him. He never felt like his dad wanted to spend time with him, it was more of a duty rather than a genuine longing, so Rodney and his sister buried themselves in books and tech to spare their father from their rushed and forced family time.
“That’s really—” Rodney floundered. “That’s kind of sweet...actually.”
Running his hand through his hair, Sheppard shuffled his feet looking down to hide the blush creeping up his neck. “Thanks.”
Rodney's own face heated up at the sight of Sheppard and his awkwardness. Moments like this had been happening often over the past few weeks, and Rodney found himself at a loss as to what they could mean. Surely, someone like Sheppard didn't think of him the way he thought of Sheppard, it was wishful longing on Rodney's part. The man had been married and was in the air force—for crying out loud! If Rodney continued to let his heart rule over his head it could only end up one of two ways. One, total and utter heartbreak, or two, total and utter humiliation, both of which were unacceptable to him. He tried to distance himself from Sheppard, tried to approach their interactions on neutral ground maintaining a hint of professionalism, but then Sheppard would tease him, challenge him, and offhandedly throw out references to binary sequences making Rodney's shriveled heart grow bigger like the Grinch's, except Rodney hadn't stolen Christmas, and even though J.J. was like his own Cindy Lou Who, he sure as hell wasn't going to be spreading happiness and joy to the people in the town below his mountain.
“Dad...” J.J. huffed before Rodney could finish his daydream of holding Sheppard’s hand while they sang carols around a tree. “Are we going?”
Rodney cleared his throat, stepping away from Sheppard, and Sheppard did the same.
“Sure, bud,” Sheppard said, helping J.J. with his bag.
“I just have to lock up.” Rodney needed to splash cold water on his face, change his shirt and crawl into a giant hole while he was at it.
“We'll meet you in the truck,” said Sheppard, pushing J.J. out the door and giving Rodney one last smile before they were gone.
This venture into the city seemed harmless enough, but like most things in Rodney’s life, there was potential for a catastrophe, especially if he couldn’t keep himself together, and the likelihood of him unraveling in front of Sheppard was astronomical. The panic was present like it always was, resting under his skin and ready to prickle its way through to the surface. Only this time it wasn’t cultivating, building into a full-blown attack from the thought of leaving the cabin. It was contained for once, overshadowed by his terror of spending hours with John Sheppard, crusher of rational behavior.
Sheppard glanced in the rear view mirror, smiling to himself. “He’s asleep,” he whispered.
“That was quick.”
They’d left the city lights behind only minutes ago, the sun long gone in the desert leaving the interior of the truck dark apart from the dashboard and the passing headlights, which were few and far between. It was stuffy in the cab with the windows closed. Rodney could smell the heat of the day in the vinyl seats, mixed with Sheppard’s earthy scent of cedar and wood smoke, and the garlic from the pasta they’d eaten for dinner lingered in the truck. It was quiet, too, Sheppard had turned off the radio when he started the engine like he anticipated his son’s slumber.
“He’s always been that way,” Sheppard said. “A moving vehicle, darkness, and he’s out cold. I suppose it’s my fault.”
“Why’s that?” Rodney asked, glancing behind him to see J.J.’s slumped over form, his mouth slack with a little drool trickling down his chin, and for the first time in Rodney’s life he felt the longing of fatherhood tug at his heart. He’d never wanted children, not even when he became an uncle. He had no one, and the majority of the time he was fine with it. He didn’t need anyone, nor did he want someone to need him, but seeing Sheppard with his son, both dependent on each other for love and support, and even laughter, Rodney’s chest ached from missing something he never knew he missed.
“J.J. was one hell of a crier,” Sheppard said. “Colicky until he was one, screamed all through the night. It was impressive, really. Who knew a tiny thing could hit those decibels?
“We were living near Ventura at the time, and I came home one night after a week stuck on base and Nancy—J.J.’s mom—met me at the door. She handed me the baby, a car seat and a diaper bag. Told me she needed a break. She didn’t care where I went or how, just that she needed a few hours of silence. It was midnight, not many places to go, so I drove. Thought my ears were going to bleed being in that confined space with him while he screamed bloody murder.
“After about five miles he started to quiet down, and after ten, he was out like a light. I drove up the PCH and back until my eyes started to burn, or until he got hungry. It became our ritual. I’d give Nancy a break, drive for a few hours, play music and bare my soul to a sleeping baby. In some ways, it was the simplest time in my life.” Sheppard chuckled, shaking his head as he glanced back at his son again.
The softness in Sheppard’s voice was a contradiction to any of the men Rodney worked with in the air force. He supposed he’d never spent enough time around them to see their tender sides, the ones they reserved for loved ones, but even so, Sheppard was not the man Rodney thought he was. From J.J’s disappointed mumblings, Rodney assumed Sheppard was like any typical father who put career and country before their family. He didn’t know Sheppard’s story, and didn’t know what led him to drag his eight-year-old son to live with his father, but he loved his son, that much was obvious, and for some reason Rodney understood it was difficult for Sheppard to talk about these things.
“That’s some dedication,” Rodney said. “Working days and nights, then driving around until all hours in the morning. How did you function?”
“It was just something I did. I don’t remember, to be honest,” John said and smiled at Rodney. “Though, I do remember how exhausted Nancy was, and how I wanted to be a better father than my dad. For most of my childhood he was deployed places we weren’t allowed to talk about. So, while I was stateside, I wanted to make sure I was there for my family, you know? Any way that I could. We knew the day was coming when I would have to leave.”
Rodney wanted to keep Sheppard talking, maybe for his own benefit to get to know the man behind the hair and the smirk, but Rodney knew it was more. He couldn’t remember the last time he spoke with someone, really spoke with them rather than at them, and maybe this was kindred to Sheppard.
“So you just drove around listening to music and talking to a baby?”
“Pretty much. And as soon as I pulled into that driveway, the little bugger would open his eyes and let out a howl.” John chuckled at his own memories. “At least Nancy thought I was being tortured like she was all day. Garnered some husband points.” They both grinned, driving for a few miles in comfortable silence before Rodney breached it again.
“What kind of things did you tell him?” Rodney took a chance, wondering if Sheppard would indulge him further.
“Oh, I don’t know. Everything. Nothing. My hopes, fears. My regrets. It was like my own confessional booth. Things I couldn’t say to my father, my wife, even my commanding officers.” Sheppard shrugged. “It’s easy to be honest with a sleeping baby. I made promises to him that I’m trying my damndest to keep. But when Nancy died, things got tough.”
“I’m sorry about your wife,” Rodney apologized.
“Ex-wife,” Sheppard offered. “We hadn’t been together for a long time. Since J.J. was three.”
“Oh,” Rodney said. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s fine. We were still a team. We weren’t husband and wife anymore, but we were a family unit and made things work. She raised him while I was overseas, and I loved her for it.”
There was more to the story, but from the shuttered expression on Sheppard’s face, he’d pressed enough into Sheppard’s personal life. Rodney wasn’t a total pariah that he didn’t recognize the signs when a topic was closed for further discussion.
Rodney watched the shadows being chased by the Bronco’s headlights. He hated this drive, which is why he rarely made it. There was nothing but scrub on either side of the road with the odd eucalyptus or buckeye tree skirting along the edge of the hummocks in the distance. Even with all the driving Sheppard had done with his son, perhaps he felt the same about this road as Rodney. It wasn’t the picturesque view of the pacific coast, with its winding roads and frequent travelers. The road out of Porterville was a lonely stretch of road, made even lonelier at night.
“So, what about you, McKay?” Sheppard said, probably sensing Rodney’s mood shifting.
“Me?” Rodney asked. “What about me?”
“I just said more to you than anyone in years. I think it’s your turn.”
“Like, how about the choice to live on a mountain near the desert surrounded by nothing but trees?”
Sheppard snorted, shaking his head. “I don’t buy that.”
“You think you have me figured out?”
“Not at all,” Sheppard said, letting his grip slip from the steering wheel, resting a hand on his thigh. “But I think I have enough of you figured out.”
While Rodney contemplated what that could possibly mean, he watched Sheppard’s hand shift back and forth on his thigh, like he attended an ache that plagued him for years, rubbing it while not even aware he was doing it. He had seen a new side of Sheppard today, one he wasn’t likely to forget. The day had been full of surprises, a pleasant afternoon and evening with Rodney discovering how charming and affable John Sheppard was. It was apparent how much J.J. admired his dad, and their mutual respect toward each other was endearing to Rodney. They never made him feel like he intruded on their day, amusing Rodney and his diatribes, while easily fitting into their conversations. Eventually, J.J. and Rodney teamed up against Sheppard, pleading to watch a PG-13 movie until Sheppard reluctantly acquiesced, but only if Rodney paid for snacks. The day was enjoyable, made so because Sheppard and his son made him feel like he belonged, but even with the ease between them, it didn’t mean John was ready to hear Rodney’s truths.
“Not much to tell,” Rodney lied.
“But you worked for the air force.”
“With,” Rodney clarified. “I worked with the air force which is a big difference. And how did you know that?”
“For one, my son does talk to me despite what you may think. And two, I checked up on you, remember? There’s this new-found machine I’ve heard people talking about, a computer and something called the Google...or so they tell me.” Sheppard winked at Rodney.
“Oh, Funny. Zing.” Rodney grimaced, and when Sheppard held his eyes for too long, like he could see through Rodney’s deflection, Rodney felt compelled to look away. “Eyes on the road, Sheppard.”
“John,” Sheppard said. “Are you ever going to call me by my name?”
“Probably not,” Rodney said. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the best at this.” He waved his hands around, encompassing the cab of the truck.
“I don’t know, McKay, you’re great with my kid. Maybe you just connect better with a younger mentality.”
“There you go again,” Rodney said, smiling, “complimenting me with a sarcastic undercut. But what you don’t know is that I’m incapable of feeling. I learned long ago to let things roll off my back, especially when they come from too-hot-for-their-own-good fly boys with cheeky attitudes.”
“That’s what you took away from that? Really?”
“Not the only thing.” Sheppard shrugged, but kept his eyes on the road. They were close to the outskirts of the small town they called home, and it couldn’t come quick enough. He could feel the ease of the day fading.
“So, what do you do up in that cabin at the end of the road?”
“Research, mostly,” Rodney said, figuring it was a safe bet and covered all of the bases.
“Research?” John sounded skeptical. “What kind of research?”
“All kinds, but mostly stuff beyond your grasp I would imagine.”
“If I wasn’t so used to you by now, I’d be insulted.”
“It’s not an insult if it’s the truth,” Rodney said.
“Wow. You weren’t kidding about the people stuff.” John turned off the highway and onto a side road that Rodney never used even though it was a shortcut. They were twenty-minutes out still, and Rodney wished John would drive faster, but this road meandered and was dangerous at night.
Most people didn’t understand what Rodney did, and what he could talk about sounded far-fetched and on the wacky side. He’d given up trying to explain his work to people, but he doubted Sheppard would let it go so easily.
“I don’t like to talk about my work,” Rodney said, wondering how Sheppard would take an information dump about space travel, aliens and weapons of mass destruction. What would Sheppard think if he knew Rodney was preparing for world annihilation, or that his research—with Radek’s help—could potentially save the planet? It sounded ridiculous even in Rodney’s head. ‘A paranoid conspiracy theorist,’ his sister had called him the last time they spoke. She warned him to stay away from her children until he came to his senses, that they didn’t need nightmares about snake-aliens from their crazy uncle Mer.
“Top secret?” Sheppard said, wriggling his eyebrows.
“Something like that.” Rodney crossed his arms, looking out the side window into the darkness. He recognized Sheppard’s teasing, but he couldn’t help the defenses he’d built up over the years. He felt the wall rising and the gate shutting the more Sheppard prodded.
“Must be important if you can’t even talk about it.”
He could feel Sheppard’s eyes on him, but he refused to look his way. They were close to Rodney’s road, which meant he could spend the rest of the ride in silence if Sheppard would let him.
It was the longest amount of hours Rodney had been away from his cabin in years. Time felt suspended with the Sheppards, like he never wanted the day to end, but with J.J. asleep in the back and Sheppard probing into his life, the road to his house seemed infinite. He always had strong convictions, never embarrassed by how he chose to live his life, but with Sheppard looking at him expectantly, he felt ashamed and somewhat defensive about his life and his decisions.
“Look, Sheppard,” Rodney snapped, “as much as this day was surprisingly pleasant, my work is my own, okay? Can we drop it?”
“All right, Rodney,” Sheppard took his hands off the wheel, “I was just curious. So long as you’re not building bombs or anything...”
“What is the obsession with weapons that you and your son have? No! I don’t build weapons!”
From the light on the dash, Rodney saw Sheppard’s expression go rigid like the day on Rodney’s porch. Sheppard glanced in the back to see if Rodney’s shout had woken J.J., but the kid slept, thankfully.
The air in the cab changed. It was charged now, and maybe it was Rodney’s imagination, but there had been a line drawn between them since the day they met, but over the past few weeks he found it fading. Glancing at Sheppard, he knew that line was back, only now it flashed yellow in warning.
Rodney’s breaths came short and fast with his shoulders raised, tense around his ears. He should apologize for his abrupt behavior, brush it off, possibly make a joke about his situation like he had so many times in the past, but that would mean lying to Sheppard and he didn’t want to do that. He wasn’t sorry for telling Sheppard to mind his own business. It was better this way, Rodney supposed, their lives were vastly different, and it was better to be at arm’s length when the world came crashing down around them and he could concentrate on his work.
Rodney stared at his chest rising and falling in the window, afraid to look at his reflection, and after some long, silent moments in the dark with the trees filling in around them, they turned onto Rodney’s dirt road. Sheppard slowed the truck, the brakes squealing as he put the Bronco in park. He turned to Rodney, words on the tip of his tongue as Rodney grabbed the door handle. It would be rude to run, Rodney thought, but he didn’t know what else to say to Sheppard.
“Dad?” J.J. woke, head back upright as he rubbed at his eyes. “We home?”
Sheppard chuckled, shaking his head. “Clockwork,” he said to Rodney, happy to share the joke with him. “Almost, buddy. Just dropping off Dr. McKay. Say goodnight.”
J.J. mumbled something, then laid his head back against the seat, presumably sleeping again.
“Thanks, Sheppard,” Rodney said, opening the door. “For...well...thanks.”
Sheppard took a deep breath, his hand twitching like he meant to reach out to Rodney, but then it relaxed and he shifted the gear instead. “You’re welcome, Rodney.”
"Why do you look like someone urinated in your porridge?" Radek’s voice sounded tinny coming from the laptop speakers.
"What?" Rodney snapped.
"Why do you look like—"
"The term is 'pissed in your cornflakes,' and no, I don't."
"What is this saying? Where does it come from?” Radek asked with humor. “I never understood."
"How am I supposed to know?" Rodney kept his head down, working on his tablet.
"Okay. Then why are you more irritable than usual?"
Radek scoffed, making Rodney look at the screen and he wished he hadn't. He didn't need to see Radek scrutinizing him from the other side of the world.
"Rodney, other than this week, you have been unrecognizable for the past month. Smiling even. And I wonder, 'Who is this man who looks like McKay, sounds like McKay, but is not McKay.’ This man willingly spends time with children, invites them into his home, talks to them, and dare I say...cured him of his horrible nature."
"It's not children, it was one child." Rodney crossed his arms. "There is no them. There was a him."
"Where is little apprentice? Did you destroy him and hide his body?"
"He wasn't my apprentice. And not that it's any of your business," Rodney said, "but I had too much work to do to waste my time on someone who was mediocre at best."
The silence on the other end was telling. As much as he liked to think he could lie to Radek, they had been friends for too long, and Radek was attuned to his moods even through the screen of a laptop. The two didn’t make it a habit to talk about personal matters, but every now and then something made its way into their discussions.
"I messed up, okay?" Rodney said, avoiding Radek's eyes. "I let the freak flag fly too much, and you know how well that always turns out."
It was nine days since that Thursday trip into the city. Nine days without any Sheppards in Rodney’s life.
"Don't, all right? I don't want to hear it. I never learn, but this time it's for good. I'm putting my efforts where they should be, not on some kid I have no reason to get attached to."
After the long Thursday filled with affable conversation and laughter, Rodney spent Friday feeling somewhat hollow. He planned to catch up on the neglected work he owed Radek, throwing himself into his research, working through the weekend to push through every distraction that made his mind wander, except he was plagued with the sinking feeling he ruined things with Sheppard. And when Tuesday morning rolled around, his suspicions were confirmed with a solitary phone call.
"If all goes well," Rodney continued, "I'm scheduling my test run in a few weeks. I need you to look over the calculations I sent. If I do a ten day simulation I’ll have to tax the system the equivalent of one year every two days."
There was more silence on the other end. He could feel the pity coming through the screen from Radek, and Rodney wanted no part of it.
"Please, Radek," he whispered.
"Okay." Radek's voice was soft but accepting.
Rodney was lying to himself more than to his friend, but he didn't know how else to get past this. The truth was he was heartbroken, blaming himself for allowing it to happen. It was over a week since he’d snapped at Sheppard in the truck, and he'd neither seen nor heard from J.J. or his father. His Tuesday morning ‘J.J. preparations’ had been interrupted by the piercing sound of the phone ringing. Patrick Sheppard was on the other end informing Rodney that his grandson was ill and would not be around to see him. It shouldn't have hurt Rodney like it did, kids got sick, Rodney understood that, but his over-active and sensitive brain imagined all of the worst scenarios. The most upsetting part was that Sheppard couldn't even call Rodney to explain; he had his father do his dirty work. By the time a full week rolled around, and still no sign of J.J., Rodney understood all too well.
As he stared at the shiny, blue bike sitting in the corner of his work-space, he felt the shame of his actions from that night in the truck. There was no justifiable reason for the way he reacted to Sheppard’s harmless questions, and he bought the bike as a way to make amends. It was meant to be a surprise when J.J. finished the work on the computer, but now it looked like it wouldn't happen. He wasn't one to wallow. He'd gone through too much disappointment in his life to dwell on insignificant things. If being banished to the cold depths of Siberia hadn't broken him, then a kid and his charming father never would.
With his chin held high, and his cheeks flushed, Rodney stared at Radek daring him to contradict his words even though his eyes begged Radek to let him have his delusions.
"Rodney," Radek said, smiling kindly but it didn't reach his eyes, "you are back to your old ways, my friend. I worried we lost you for good."
Rodney took a deep breath, grateful Radek understood enough not to harp any further. He would stick to what worked for him before the Sheppards barged into his life. He'd get someone to drop the bike off at the Sheppard's place the next time he got a delivery from town, and then he'd be done with them.
Rodney walked his property with the intention of finalizing the installation of his self-sufficient power grid. If he was to do a test run of the system he needed to ensure the work he’d done was complete and running smoothly to move on to the next phase. He pushed aside his feelings, refusing to surrender to his emotions, refusing to allow Sheppard any kind of power over him. One trip to Cora’s Diner told him all he needed to know. When asked, Tina told him she hadn’t seen Sheppard, but Patrick Sheppard and his grandson were in for lunch earlier that day. Rodney had been down this road before, and although this time the rejection hit him harder than the others, he wouldn’t let it deter him from the reason he was on this mountain. His work was all he needed.
As Rodney approached the top of the ridge, it was easy to see the scale of his property in comparison to his rustic home. The cabin itself was only a third the size of the space buried twenty-five feet underneath it. To the casual observer, he supposed the outward appearance of the weathered wood siding on his cabin matched his ‘madbomber’ reputation. He never cared what it looked like, inside or out, only that it did its job in the winter and maintained the facade to hide what was below—a state-of-the-art, high tech research outpost designed to withstand the end of the world.
It had been over a month since he walked the property, not since the Sheppards barrelled their way into his life. Rodney could see everything from the ridge, including the dirt road leading up to his cabin, which was startlingly dusty now, indicating a car had passed over it—a car, or a green beat-up Bronco.
Panicking, Rodney did a cursory glance around the cabin for any sign of Sheppard, and when there was none, his heart sank realizing he left the cabin door unlocked, as well as the door off the kitchen to the underground.
"Sheppard." He cursed under his breath, beginning his run down the ridge. He would never make it in time to intercept Sheppard if he chose to seek Rodney out when he didn’t answer the door.
"Sheppard!" he yelled, even though he knew he wouldn’t hear. He leapt and sidestepped over logs, trying to avoid a fall that would break his neck. It would be just his luck to die on the hillside leaving his life exposed to the one man he never wanted to discover his secrets. He ran harder than he had in years, his lungs burning with the effort to draw breath, and his knees ached from the punishing pounding of the slope.
There was no sign of Sheppard anywhere.
Rodney’s heart beat overtime in his chest, his own voice sounding fuzzy to his ears as he stumbled up the porch steps and through the door, calling Sheppard’s name.
He skipped the steps to the basement, jumping them in two leaps and skidded to a halt at the top of the ladder to the tunnel underground. He slid down the ladder, his hands squelching on the metal as his sweat and skin ran over the side rail, landing on both feet at the bottom.
"McKay?" He heard the call back, but it didn't matter. It was too late. Sheppard had invaded his personal space. He saw what was down here, and was the first person to step foot in here since he'd built it. Rodney's stomach turned at the thought. His breaths came hard and fast, trying to catch up from the exertion of the run, and the humiliation of having his life exposed. It felt like his throat was closing, restricting his airflow. It wasn't a heart attack even though his heart was on the verge of being crushed. He recognized the panic attack for what it was, the clammy skin and overwhelming dread was all too familiar. Rodney leaned against the concrete wall, placing his hands on his knees hoping the position would help him breathe. The feelings of helplessness flooded his body. It was years since he had an attack, not since the days with the air force.
"McKay?" Rodney felt a hand on his shoulder. "You all right, buddy? What's wrong? You don't look so good." Sheppard tried to lift him by the shoulders. "Come on. Come sit down. What do you need?"
Rodney let himself be dragged to a chair, and shoved his head between his knees.
"You're not having a heart attack, are you? Allergic reaction? What is it? You need some water? Aspirin?"
Rodney heard Sheppard shuffling things around on his desk. Heard drawers and cupboards being opened, and mumbles of surprise after opening each one. If Sheppard hadn't gotten a good look at Rodney's ‘crazy’ before, he sure as hell had now, which only made it harder to catch a breath.
"Whoa!" Sheppard said, and Rodney heard something metal drop and then roll across the floor. "What the hell was that?"
Sheppard continued to move about the room, and when the item John dropped came rolling near Rodney's feet, he understood why Sheppard had dropped it. Rodney’s mouth fell open, but no sound emerged. His eyes were swimming in darkness with bursts of light being the only thing he could see before he hit the floor, and the concrete connected with his head.
“That’s it, Rodney. Come on.”
Someone tapped his cheek. Rodney tried to swat the touch away, but found his arms unwilling to cooperate. His limbs were heavy and useless lying at his sides, and his head hurt like a—
“McKay!” The voice was insistent, while hands shook his shoulders. “Time to wake up and explain what the hell just happened.” A sharp sting landed on his cheek, and then he was awake, blinking at Sheppard’s wide, hazel eyes hovering above him.
“You hit me!” Rodney shrieked, scrambling away from Sheppard until he hit the wall. He clutched his head in his hands. “I could have a head injury, and you might’ve made it worse. Why’d you hit me?”
“You don’t have a concussion, a nasty headache maybe, and it was a tap,” Sheppard said, standing and brushing at his pants. “And I tapped you because we’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes while you decided to take a nap after you fainted.”
“I did not faint.”
“Oh, no? Then what would you call it, Sleeping Beauty?”
Rodney took a deep breath, about to begin his sarcastic retort when he noticed the silver dollar sized light next to the yellow release button that controlled the door. The light was not the familiar green he was used to seeing. It was a solid red. He rubbed at his eyes to make sure it wasn’t a side effect from his pounding head. Staring in horror, he willed the light to turn green, but when it didn’t, he realized what must’ve happened while he was passed out.
Rodney hopped to his feet, reaching for the lab bench to steady himself as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He wasn’t convinced of Sheppard’s diagnosis, but being concussed was the least of his problems.
“What did you do?” Rodney screeched, hurting his own ears and John’s in the process.
Once his balance returned, he rushed to the steel door, slamming his palm repeatedly on the yellow button.
“What did you do?” he repeated, gripping the door handle and reefing on it with all his might even though he knew it was futile.
“I tried that already.”
“You idiot! You moron!” Rodney banged his hand against the eight-inch-thick, metal door. “I can’t believe how stupid—”
“Enough with the name calling!” Sheppard glanced behind him, and not just at something but someone. J.J. was in the corner of the room looking smaller than his usual boisterous self. His eyes were wide with tears threatening to spill, and his face was paler than was healthy. The poor kid was terrified, looking frantically between Rodney and his dad, and Rodney’s own hysteria corralled itself for the sake of J.J.
“Dr. McKay told me not to come down here. It’s my fault.” J.J.’s lip quivered and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Hey, hey, hey,” John said, rushing to his son and pulling him into his arms. “It’s not your fault.”
Rodney wanted to contradict Sheppard, but he didn’t think that would be well received, so instead he went to his lab bench, typing code and bringing up screens to confirm his dread.
“No. No, no,” he mumbled.
“We are so screwed,” he said under his breath.
There were good reasons why kids should listen when they were explicitly told places were off limits, and there were severe consequences for their insolence. That’s what he wanted to yell, but a hundred thoughts raced through his head, and most of them had to do with one side of his brain saying, ‘I told you so,’ while the other side said, ‘You are so screwed.’ Nothing good came from letting people into your life. This philosophy had worked well for him for years. If Rodney had kept to himself instead of inviting inquisitive eight-year-olds onto his porch, none of this would be happening. “I can’t believe—”
“McKay!” John shouted, lifting J.J. in his arms as he stood. “Want to fill me in, here? What is this place?”
“Fill you in.” Rodney snorted, folding his arms over his chest. He tried to hold back his anger, the kid didn’t deserve it, but it was impossible with his expressive face. “I hope you don’t have anywhere to be, Sheppard.” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, say, in the next ten days?”
“I have lots of places I need to be, McKay. One very important place to be, actually. Which is why we were here in the first place.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because whatever the hell your offspring touched effectively locked down this bunker.”
J.J. started to say something, but then Sheppard clued into what Rodney had said.
“Yes, a bunker.”
Sheppard was silent for a few breaths, then shifted to put J.J. in the chair behind him. He took a few meaningful steps toward Rodney with his hands on his hips. “Well, unlock it.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“It means I can’t.” Rodney raised his hands in front of him, shaking his head.
“Unlock the door, McKay,” Sheppard said between gritted teeth.
“What don’t you understand? It’s on a timer.”
“Speed up the timer, then.”
“It doesn’t work like that! It’s a bunker. There are fail-safes in place. I’m sure even you understand what that means.”
“Fail-safe for what?”
“So, there’s no chance of opening the door early in the event of an attack. There’s no way out.”
“An attack.” Sheppard turned, running his hands through his hair. His head moved from side to side like he was taking in the room for the first time, and now that he knew they were in a bunker, Rodney supposed he was. Sheppard’s eyes landed on J.J. who had his knees tucked up against his chest, still sniffling.
“Then what about from the outside?” Sheppard asked, moving to study the door. He took out his cell phone then frowned when he realized there was no reception. “Maybe there's a trigger of some sort to open the door from the other side? We could get a message to someone.”
“What? A trigger? It’s a bunker. Like I’d leave a loophole for someone to figure out how to get in here.” Rodney scoffed. “Are you nuts?”
“Am I nuts?” Sheppard’s eyes went wide, giving Rodney an incredulous look. “Am I—You’re crazy! You really are crazy. You know that?” John yelled, taking slow, measured steps toward Rodney. “What the hell are you doing with a bunker under your house? One you can’t get out of! You’re insane. I heard the rumors, but I never thought they were true.” Sheppard grabbed his hair, pulling and grunting in frustration.
“Stop it!” J.J. shouted. “Stop fighting! I’m sorry!” He ran further into the bunker, throwing himself on the oversized flop chair Rodney had in the living area.
The bunker was silent for a few breaths; both Sheppard and Rodney avoided each other’s eyes unsure of what to say. Then with a huff, Sheppard followed his son.
“It’s okay, buddy. This is not your fault. We’re not mad. We’re just trying to figure out what happened.” Sheppard pulled J.J. into his arms once again, and met Rodney’s eyes over the top of J.J.’s head.
Rodney didn’t know how to handle this; he wasn’t exactly used to kids and he definitely didn’t know how to comfort them, especially when Rodney was shaken as well. How was he supposed to tell Sheppard there was no way out, at least not for ten days, which is what he coded the release for on the last upload? Rodney’s plan for a test run next month just got bumped. It was supposed to be a dry run once everything was fully operational, but he was still weeks away. He had put the test on hold when the Sheppards waltzed into his life. He hadn’t felt compelled to test it, to lock himself away from them, at least he hadn’t until they abandoned him last week.
Rodney saw the panic in Sheppard’s face, but he didn’t know how to handle that, either. Sheppard probably thought they were going to die down here, lost to the world without anyone knowing what happened to them. Rodney could at least placate that fear.
“It’s a fallout shelter,” Rodney explained, leaving the word ‘nuclear’ out of the description. “There’s everything we need down here to survive up to two or three years.” It was supposed to be five years, but with two extra people he re-calculated the odds. “There’s food, water, a toilet, and we have power. And since this isn’t exactly an emergency, the satellites and phone line still work even though you don’t have cell service. We just can’t leave for the next ten days.”
“I was planning a test run, a simulation. I put the door on a timer for ten days.” Rodney wrung his hands, bracing for Sheppard’s sharp tongue. He was about to lash out at Rodney when J.J. hiccupped from crying too hard. Sheppard broke his death glare at Rodney, kissing the top of J.J.’s head.
“Looks like you’ll be missing the first few days of school.”
“He’ll be better off,” Rodney mumbled, earning another glare from Sheppard.
“I suppose it’ll be like uncle Chester's cabin,” Sheppard said to J.J., rubbing his back, “just without the fishing.”
“Or the bugs,” J.J. said.
“Without the bugs,” John agreed, chuckling as he stood to set J.J. on his feet. “How about you have a look around, but stay where I can see you while I talk to Dr. McKay?”
J.J. nodded, glancing from Rodney and John. “Don’t fight.”
“We’re just going to talk. Promise.” Sheppard ruffled the hair on J.J.’s head, pushing him toward the kitchen area.
As Sheppard’s murderous gaze landed on Rodney, he gulped, wishing he could join J.J. in the other part of the bunker.
Wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends! Hope you had a good one.