22 years later
Mom doesn’t like it when Grandpa John smokes inside the house, so Joanna should have anticipated that he was standing on the back porch, right beneath her window when she climbs out.
“Where are you going, kid?”
Joanna gasps in surprise, her grip falters and she drops rather inelegantly to the ground. She straightens, turns and glares at the tall man grinning at her in the semi-darkness, smoothing her dress and lifting her chin, pretending she always meant to land this way. Damn. Now her cunning plan to sneak off is fucked.
“Don’t think your Mom will like it when you disappear on her 20th anniversary, kid. Do you?”
Joanna glares some more. Now Grandpa John will tell on her. Joanna can already imagine the sad disappointment when her Mom finds out she tried to sneak away on her special day. Typical. She never gets to have any fun, it’s so unfair.
Grandpa John chuckles and drags on his cigar. The tip glows red in the darkness of the porch and Joanna sniffs a bit. She likes the smell, it’s familiar and comfortable. It reminds her of when she was a kid, sitting on his knees, her little fingers disappearing in his large hands while Grandpa John taught her to count to ten.
She sighs and flops down to sit on the bench beside him. If she can’t sneak away, she can at least sit outside for a bit, escape all the aunts inside who want to pinch her cheeks and tell her she’s grown so much! And she looks just like her father, so pretty! And be careful, honey, all those boys are just interested in one thing, and what would your mother say! Horrible.
Grandpa John puts his arm around her and she leans against him.
“Too many people in there?”
She makes a face. “Too many aunts. Aunt Georgie was going on about marriage again, how she could wear her veil with honor, and I’d better make sure no boy was gonna touch me inappropriately until I’m married… as if I was 12 years old, honestly.”
Grandpa John chuckles, the rumble makes his chest vibrate against her. “Just wait until your uncles Bosco and Murdock get here, they’ll shut her up real quick.”
Joanna snickers. It’s no secret that Aunt Georgie is pretty homophobic, and especially Uncle Murdock takes much delight in kissing “that man” in front of her until she’s all flustered and annoyed. It’s awesome.
“So, where were you planning on going anyway?”
“Oh,” Joanna shrugs, carefully nonchalant, “Lizzie is throwing a party and I thought I might check it out, you know…”
“Ah, I see.” She can hear the smile in his voice. “You thought that maybe this boy would be there, the one you told me about?”
Joanna is annoyed by the flush she can feel rising on her cheeks. But Grandpa John doesn’t tease her or anything, just wraps his arm more comfortably around her and takes another drag on his cigar. “Yeah, maybe. I dunno, he’s really busy with the team and stuff, so he probably isn’t even there and all…”
“Well, if you still want to go, I haven’t seen anything. Most certainly not a very pretty young lady sneak out of her room to go to a party…”
She smiles and cuddles against him. “Nah, it’s okay. Guess I should at least show my face in there at first, say hello to everybody.”
“Well, I’m sure if you ask your Dad he’ll let you go later. You’re just like him, I swear. God knows how many times I caught him sneaking out from some function he didn’t want to go to…”
Joanna smiles at the fond exasperation in her Grandpa’s voice.
“Did I tell you about the time he made a rope from tablecloths, just so he could escape the General’s wife who was sure he was starving and needed fattening up?”
“What?! No, you didn’t! What happened?” She sits straight and peers at him excitedly. She loves tales about her Dad’s earlier life, about the army and the soldiers-of-fortune stuff, but her Mom never allows her Dad to tell her those stories. Says they aren’t good for a young, impressionable girl like her. Way too late, Joanna thinks with no small amount of satisfaction. Uncle Bosco’s already teaching her hand-to-hand combat, and Uncle Henry and Dad promised they’ll take her for a helicopter ride on her birthday.
Grandpa John lights a new cigar and smiles. “Well, then let me tell you…”
“… and she says ‘Oh, John, haven’t you seen poor Templeton around? I swear, that poor boy is getting thinner every day! You just wait until I find him, I’m gonna make sure that boy is eating right, even if I have to force-feed him!’ And the whole time Face is hiding behind me, trembling in fear! Trembling! Oh, it was priceless!”
Joanna flops on her back and clutches her belly, laughing so hard her sides hurt. Ha, she can imagine! Her Dad all scared and afraid, hiding behind her Grandpa, trying to escape the woman’s clutches! Grandpa John laughs, too, deep and rumbling, and every time one of them calms down somewhat, the other says “Force-feed him!” and they are off again.
Eventually they calm down and Joanna wipes tears from her eyes, still snickering occasionally. Grandpa John tucks her against his side again and they are quiet. From inside the house they can hear voices, her Dad yelling something about pancakes and her Mom laughing. Then Uncle Bosco’s deep voice rumbles and Joanna realizes the party’s about to start.
“I guess we should go back inside.” she says and sighs. She doesn’t really want to, it’s nice and quiet out here. Grandpa John smiles at her and leans closer to whisper conspiratorially: “I’ll protect you from the evil aunts. You can hide behind me, I promise I won’t let anybody try and force-feed you.”
Joanna snickers and gives him a hand up, mindful of his bad knee. She links her arm through his and waits until he’s put out his cigar before they wander towards the door, slowly, because of his limp. She’ll stay for an hour, maybe, or two, and then she’ll sneak out and go to Lizzie’s party. Dad will allow it, and if he doesn’t, she’ll get Grandpa John to make him allow it. Or maybe she’ll call Lizzie first, and ask her if Mike’s there. Mike. She smiles to herself. He’s always blushing when she talks to him, and last week they held hands for a bit, it was really nice.
“Grandpa?” she says suddenly, and the man stops to look at her, curious because of the tone of her voice.
“Have you ever been in love?”
Her Grandpa sighs and she tries to make out his face in the darkness. He sounds a bit sad?
“Yeah, I was in love.”
“Didn’t you want to marry her? I just, only, because you’re all alone and stuff, and I was wondering…”
Grandpa John sighs again. “Yeah, I wanted to marry him. But he never, he didn’t feel the same way about me, so it never went anywhere.”
“Oh.” Joanna bites her lips. She didn’t want to make him sad, Jesus. Stupid. “I’m sorry.”
He smiles at her. “Don’t be. Wasn’t meant to be, it seems. And I’m not alone, kid.” He tugs her close and kisses her forehead. “I have your Dad and your uncles. And I have you, Joanna Peck. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
She smiles back and stands on tip toe to press her lips to his cheek. His big hand comes up to tweak her nose, like he used to do when she was little and she giggles and swats it away.
“Now, let’s go inside. I bet they are all waiting for us, and Dad said you wanted to give a speech about how he and Mom met or something.”
Grandpa John sighs again, almost inaudibly, and follows her inside, towards their waiting family.
The end of Ending Two...