John wondered what he was thinking, agreeing to attend Thanksgiving dinner with Rodney and his daughter. It had been a long time since he had been to a family dinner of any type, much less for a holiday. Oh, well, he had a couple of days to think about it.
He watched Rodney drive off and, not sure what else to do, wandered back to the coat tent. He hadn't wanted to admit he was looking for a coat for himself when Rodney made the assumption he was a volunteer.
"Hey, Major Sheppard," the man cleaning up the tent called. "Anything I can do to help?"
"No, thanks," John replied. "Can I help?"
"Almost done," the man replied with a wave. "I saw you working before, the help was appreciated."
"Sure," John said. He looked around to see what else needed to be done. He spotted a jacket in the corner and pulled it out. He shook it out and recognized it as Rodney's jacket.
"What did you find?" the other man asked.
"Rodney McKay was working with me, he took off his jacket earlier and must have forgotten it," John said. "I have his number, I'll give him a call."
"That works," the man said easily.
When all the coats were inside, a half a dozen men who must have been regulars at the post came out and started taking down the tables and stacking them on a cart. It didn't take long to clear out the tent completely.
"Tent company comes tomorrow morning to take it down," someone commented.
Not having any other excuse to hang around, John took the jacket and went out to the street. Deciding it was easier than carrying it, he put it on, grateful for the extra warmth. He put his hands in the pockets and headed up the street.
For a city, Buffalo was relatively small, especially when compared to Chicago and especially New York. On the other hand, the rooming house he was living in was a good five miles from the VFW post and he wasn't yet familiar with the bus schedule to try to take public transportation. Dark had fallen before he started out and even keeping a brisk pace didn't help fight off the chill in the air. He needed to get a hat of some sort, his ears were cold.
The rooming house was nothing-special but cheap enough that he could afford it. He had some back pay saved up, but it wasn't enough to allow him to afford anything nicer, at least until he could find a steady job.
"Hey, John!" Al lived in the room next to his and often had his door open, looking for company. He loved to talk, and loved to play gin rummy even more. Al had come by and introduced himself on John's first day in the building.
"Hi," John replied. "Going to call it a night," he explained as he moved toward his own door. "Long day."
"Saw you on the news tonight," Al said. "Didn't know you were in the service."
Damn. This is why he hated events like the one today.
"Yeah," John admitted. "Got out recently and figuring out what to do next."
"You figure it out, you let me know," Al laughed.
"Night," John said firmly. He really was tired.
Al took the hint. "Night," he replied. "Catch you some other time."
John let himself into his room and hung the jacket in the closet. The room had a sink with a mirror over it to let him wash up but the bathroom was down the hall and shared by the ten men on the floor. Since he rarely had anyplace to be on a schedule, he had been able to be flexible in using the facility. But a hot shower sounded like a good idea right now.
John put on a bathrobe and grabbed his shower kit and a towel. Al had been helpful in filling out the shower kit, showing John what he had cobbled together, and pointing out where John could get something similar for minimal cost.
The bathroom was empty when he got there. The single shower stall was at the far end of the room, beyond the two toilet stalls. John hung his towel on the hook just inside the curtain and put his kit on the small shelf. He turned on the shower, fortunately there seemed to be plenty of hot water, and took off his bathrobe.
The hot shower felt good. It took the remaining chill out of his body and warmed stiff muscles. He had worked harder today than he had in a while and the unaccustomed exercise had felt good. He washed carefully over the scars on his leg, some of them were still sensitive.
John crawled into bed, warm and comfortable.
Surprisingly enough, a day he had not been looking forward to had turned out well. For the first time in a long time, John slept through the night without being disturbed by any dreams.
By Thursday morning, John was torn. He almost wanted to go to Rodney's for dinner but, he had to admit, he felt awkward and unexpectedly nervous. But the alternative was a turkey sandwich and gin rummy with Al. The rooms didn't have any cooking options -- in fact, anything resembling cooking was expressly forbidden -- but a small refrigerator in each room let residents keep cold drinks and some food. John had bought lunchmeat and bread to help stretch his money, and not have to eat out all the time.
John spent some time thinking about Rodney. Rodney was the first civilian to treat him like a 'normal' person. The men from the VFW post had either fawned over him or treated him like he was fragile and would break if they spoke to him wrong. The folk at the VA had been marginally better but had no time to really talk with him. Rodney had been protective of John in an undramatic sort of way, treating him like everyone else. It had been refreshing.
Giving in to some undefined temptation, John decided to go. The rooming house was a couple blocks from a bus line and he rode the bus as far as it went. It was another couple of miles walk to get to Rodney's place in the Lancaster suburb. He had used the computer in the public library down the street from the rooming house to Google directions to Rodney's house.
He really needed a hat. His ears were cold again and he huddled down in the jacket. Gloves would be nice, too. Good thing there wasn't any snow, he'd have wet feet to go with everything else. He certainly wasn't prepared for Buffalo weather.
He saw the name "McKay" on the mailbox at the street and went up the driveway. He looked up to see an elegantly designed home. It wasn't ostentatious but it was warm and welcoming. He rang the doorbell and waited. He suddenly realized that he could have brought something.
Norah answered the door. "Mr S! You came!" She looked at him, "Hey, you have a jacket just like the one my dad lost the other day. How funny. Come on in."
John was embarrassed. He had forgotten that this was Rodney's jacket and, since it was the only one he had, he had automatically worn it. But Norah was already walking away from him.
John took off the jacket and Norah turned to point to the closet next to the door. "Hang your stuff up there," she called. "Gotta get the cheese for the nachos off the stove before it burns!"
John hung the jacket and his hoodie, the house was pleasantly warm, and followed Norah to the kitchen. "Can I help?" he asked.
"Nachos over there," she pointed with her chin. "Open a bag and put it in the bowl."
John did as Norah puttered at the stove. "Now what?" he asked.
"Take that into the family room, back that way," she directed. "Follow the sound of the tv and you'll be all set. Wait. Get something to drink to take with you. In the fridge, help yourself."
John went over the fridge and grabbed a diet Coke from the box. He took that and the bowl of chips into the other room.
"John!" Rodney called, looking up. "Sorry, didn't hear you come in. Have a seat!"
John put the bowl of chips on the large coffee table in the center of what was obviously a well used and comfortable family room. He found a coaster for the soda before he put it down.
A football game had already started and was almost to the end of the first quarter. John sat back to relax and enjoy the game.
"Have any problems finding us?" Rodney asked.
"Nah," John replied. "Googled the address and the map was accurate."
"Good enough," Rodney replied easily.
Norah leaned into the hall and called, "Door, dad. I got the last one! Can't leave the stove!"
"Damn doorbell," Rodney groused. "Doesn't work properly and you can't hear it unless you're in the kitchen." He got up and hurried out of the room.
Since he was alone, John looked around. An over sized room, it was simply decorated with a portrait of Rodney and Norah above the fireplace and a set of overflowing bookshelves along the opposite wall. John itched to poke through the bookshelves but resisted, not wanting to wear out his welcome in his first hour in the house.
A teenage girl John vaguely remembered from the other day came bounding in, followed by Norah who had oven mitts on her hands, holding what he suspected was the cheese for the nachos. Three other people followed, and Rodney brought up the rear.
"John Sheppard, you might or might not remember Norah's friend Donna," Rodney introduced everyone. "This is my TA Ghadir, her roommate Ronni and their friend.." he turned to the third person. "Okay, sorry, tell me your name again?"
An asian looking young man said, "Kovit."
"Kovit," Rodney repeated, obviously trying to remember it. "Everyone, John. Drinks in the fridge, food will be coming out of our ears before we're done and bathroom's around the corner. Ask if you need anything else."
"Thank you for having us," Ronni said formally. She looked a little older than the other two and had a slight British accent. "We appreciate your hospitality."
"Not a problem!" Rodney replied easily. "Glad to have you. Sit, be comfortable."
Detroit didn't have much of a team this year but they put up a good fight, so it was an entertaining game. Norah and Donna disappeared before the end of the second quarter but the others sat around talking amiably and rooting for the underdog Lions.
During the fourth quarter, Donna came around and offered more drinks and picked up the snacks. "Dinner in another hour or so," she explained. "Need to save some room for the rest of the food."
Ghadir and Ronni popped up with that announcement and asked, "What can we do?"
Donna waved them to follow her, "I think Norah has some things you can help with." As John was about to move she added, "And two's plenty of help, thanks. Any more and we'll be in each other's way."
John settled back into the lounge chair at that and contented himself with watching the game.
Rodney asked Kovit, "Where are you from originally?"
"From Thailand," he replied. "I've been in the US for most of my life but my family was going back to Thailand to visit for a couple of months and it was impossible for me to go while school was in session. I hope to join them at Christmas time."
"Well then, glad you could join us," Rodney said. "What program are you in?"
"I'm almost ABD in Economics," he replied. "I'm finishing up my last classes this semester and have already completed the literature research. I should be able to graduate in August and then I'm going back to a Ministry position in Bankok. The government has helped fund my education and I am obligated to work for them for at least five years."
"Sounds like a good deal," Rodney observed.
Kovit shrugged. "It is something my father has arranged through an uncle who works for the government. Since I have lived in the US for most of my life, it will be strange for me to actually live in my homeland."
"It's hard at first," John found himself putting in. "Working in another country like that takes some getting used to. Give yourself six months before you make any serious decisions about whether you like it or not."
"That's right!" Rodney put in. "You've been overseas." He looked at Kovit. "John was in the service and recently got out."
John allowed the brief description stand, it was as reasonable a summary as any. "I was in Italy for a year and later ended up in Afghanistan. Even living on a base, you also get a flavor of the country. Everywhere is different, not necessarily good or bad, and you have to figure out what you want to do."
Kovit grinned. "That's pretty much what my mother has said," he admitted. "Give it time, she says." He shrugged. "Guess that's my only choice."
"Going in with a good attitude will help," John added. "I saw lots of guys who were determined to hate it from the day they arrived and, hate it they did. They were miserable and it was tough to be around them."
By then the game was over -- Detroit losing in the last five minutes of the game -- the post game show was on and Rodney flicked through the channels.
"Let me find the channel for the next game. But dinner should be ready soon, I would think," he said. "I'm to stay out of the way until I'm called." He grinned. "It's not my fault that I got distracted last year and burnt the gravy."
"No gravy?" John asked in mock horror. "I'd keep you out of the kitchen, too."
"We had other gravy out of a jar or something," he defended himself. "Okay, it wasn't the same."
"No it wasn't," Norah put in from the doorway. "Wash up, dinner's almost ready."
"You guys go ahead," Rodney directed. "I'll go upstairs and use the bathroom there."
John let Kovit use the bathroom and then went into the small room. He pissed and then washed his hands, using the dainty 'hostess' towel to dry them on. He looked at it for a moment, not realizing how much he missed niceties like this.
John went back to the kitchen and Donna pointed him off to another room, "There."
The dining room would probably sit sixteen, if they were very good friends. The six of them would have plenty of space to eat comfortably. On the other hand, there was enough food on the table for at least twenty people.
"Come, sit," Norah directed. She sat John down at one end. "Dad has the head, but you can be the foot!" She giggled.
Rodney came in then and sat at the other end and looked over the spread. "What do we have?" he asked.
Norah rattled off the dishes, which included, of course, turkey, but there was mashed potato casserole, gravy, two kinds of stuffing, three kinds of vegetables -- which were all vegan, just in case -- rolls and breads, cranberries fixed three ways and a bowl of salad.
"Anyone with any allergies or things you really do not like?" she asked.
"Nuts," Kovit looked apologetic.
"There are nuts in the one stuffing and the cranberry bread, but nothing else," she said.
"Olives," John felt obligated to put in. "Not an allergy but, well, I don't like to eat them if I can avoid it."
"Stay away from the salad," she advised, "but everything else is safe."
She gave them a heartbeat to say anything else then reached out a hand to grasp John's and took Ronni's hand. It was a bit of a stretch around the large table, but it was a nice touch. "Then we need to be thankful," she said. "Everyone add one thing you are thankful for. Dad, you start."
"I'm thankful that Norah is a good kid and that she has good friends," Rodney said with a smile at his daughter.
Ghadir was next. "I am thankful to be passing calculus!" Everyone laughed.
Donna added softly, "I am thankful for good friends." John could hear the underlying message that it wasn't as simple as she had stated, but it was his turn.
"I am grateful for my health and a new start," he added.
Norah then said, "I'm am thankful for a great dad and a good life."
Ronni finished up with, "I am thankful for a good meal and I'm hoping there will be leftovers!" More laughter.
"Eat up!" Rodney directed.
There was something that looked like wine in front of him and, catching his look, Norah explained to the table at large, "Just sparking apple juice, everyone."
They dug in. The food was excellent and John ate more than he probably should have, feeling very full before he was done. Even just a small taste of all the dishes was an immense amount of food.
They all were groaning before they were done but it was a good sound, John realized.
"Since we did the cooking, the guys get to do the cleanup," Norah proclaimed.
"Fair enough," John replied. "Dishes I can do."
"Let's take the food out to the kitchen and everyone is welcome to take leftovers," Norah added. "I'm not going to let all this go to waste, or eat it all myself."
Ronnie and Ghadir looked delighted at the offer and even Kovit smiled.
"Come on," Donna grabbed a couple of the serving dishes. "There's more in the kitchen."
"More!" Rodney squawked. "Were you going to feed the entire town?"
"Not that much more," Norah soothed. "And you'd not have it any other way."
At Rodney's suddenly bashful look, everyone knew it was true.
Norah had laid out disposable dishes that looked like they belonged in a restaurant. "Make up whatever you have storage for and you'll have some pre-made dinners," she said.
The three students worked at it cheerfully. Each had three ready-to-heat meals by the time they were done.
"Mr S? You going to take anything?" Donna asked.
"I... sure," he said. "Do you mind if I make a plate for the guy who lives in the room next to me? He'd appreciate the home made food."
"Sure," Norah said. "No problem. There's plenty to share."
Not really sure what Al liked, John put a little of everything on a plate and then made a second for himself. There were lids for the plates and plastic bags to make carrying easier.
While one load went through the dishwasher, John and Kovit washed and dried glasses and larger dishes while Rodney put things away. Since Rodney knew where everything went, that was the most sensible way. Norah had obviously done some washing up before they sat down to eat since there were only a handful of pots and pans to wash.
In a flurry of movement, Ghadir, Ronni and Kovit suddenly left. John was annoyed with himself because he had hoped for a ride to at least the nearest bus line. It was dark and misty, which meant walking would be nasty.
As Norah and Donna were waving the others off, Norah looked out over the empty driveway and asked, "Where's your car?"
"Umm... don't have one," John had to admit.
"How did you get here?" she demanded, eyes wide.
"Took the bus," he replied.
"But... the bus doesn't come anywhere near here!" she protested.
"Walked from the end of the bus line, that's all," he admitted. "I was hoping the others would give me a ride."
"Mr S! Honestly!" she sighed. She turned and went back inside the house.
John grabbed his hoodie and Rodney's jacket. He couldn't afford to return it now, it would be cold walking back to the bus. He was glad there were some discrete reflective stripes on the jacket so he would be more visible to passing cars.
Rodney hurtled into the vestibule. "What do you mean you walked?" The look of horror on Rodney's face was almost comical. He waved his hands. "There's no sidewalks and it must be... how far is it to the bus stop anyway? Is there even a bus at this time of night? What were you thinking?"
For some odd reason, it felt good to be yelled at like that. Like someone cared.
John grinned. "It's only a couple of miles to the bus stop, the last bus leaves at 11 pm, so there's plenty of time and, well," okay, this wasn't so easy to admit in the end, "it's all I got."
"A couple of miles? 11 pm? What the fuck?" Rodney said in amazement.
"Hey! It's not that bad," John soothed. "Done worse on a night mission, although there wasn't much walking alone, especially at night. But walking's good for you."
Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose. John was amused that people really did that and it wasn't something writers made up.
"I would normally offer to take you home," Rodney sighed, "but, there's a complication with Donna. I can't take her anywhere outside the house and I don't want to leave the girls here alone. I trust them, it's other people I don't trust and anything more than that isn't my story to tell."
"So, I'll walk then," John said patiently.
"You will not!" Rodney all but growled. "You can spend the night here, we will eat leftovers for breakfast, make sure Donna's home safe and then I can take you wherever you need to go."
"You don't have to..." John automatically protested.
"Yes, I do," Rodney replied. "Besides, with Donna spending the night, there's not going to be much sleeping. At least on the girl's part. They will be up all night watching something like Harry Potter on Netflix and will end up falling asleep in the family room. You can have the bed in the spare bedroom."
"I don't want to inconvenience anyone," John made one last effort to leave.
"Take the jacket off and stay," Rodney said. "It'll give the girls something to fuss over, finding you a toothbrush and whatnot. But it's not a bother."
"You sure?" John had to ask.
"I'm sure," Rodney said softly. That sincerity was John's undoing.
John took off the jacket and hoodie and hung them up in the closet.
"Thanks," he said.