Chapter 5 Stranger than kindness
On the plane Johnny seemed nervous. To Peggy however, this was the end; this was what she wanted. He was home.
She turned to him as the plane slowed to a crawl, putting her hand on his, and she said, “Are you ready to go home Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t react at first, as if hearing his own name was foreign to him.
He smiled and nodded.
They got off the plane to reporters with cameras and questions he didn’t answer.
She held his hand. He was shy and she suddenly felt a shard of ice hit her heart as she realized why that might be.
She looked at him and he looked away. “Johnny, are you afraid Momma’s not gonna love you anymore or something?” He mouthed something and furrowed his brow. “You don’t need to worry; you’re home now. We’ve missed you; we’ve all missed you, but it’s going to be OK now, I promise”
She led him out of the arrivals area and through passport control, to get their luggage. He didn’t have much: only that one backpack and the clothes on his back.
What if there was something wrong with him? What if he’d never get better? What if the Johnny she knew was gone, never to return?
She shook off those feelings and led him out to the parking lot.
Still he was nervous; he couldn’t stop moving, bouncing around, going to the bathroom a lot and watching people and watching Peggy. He was always watching her, trying to pick up cues from her, like he’d forgotten how to be him and somehow watching her would help him remember.
Who he was depended on her expectation at this point.
Peggy’s husband, Brandon with his camcorder, their son, Carl and daughter, Sarah, and Johnny and Peggy’s mother, Angela had all loaded up in Carl’s Lincoln to go get Johnny.
They waited at the end of a long, tiled and windowless hallway. It was white with bluing tiles stuck on the walls. Brandon started filming: many people passed them, young, old, fat, skinny, men and women, but none of them were Peggy and Johnny.
With each person who passed them, it seemed less and less likely that Peggy and Johnny would come out: a bad dream,; they’d lost one child and sent another to find him, only to lose that one too. The big bad world just swallowed them up.
Until finally Peggy emerged, carrying her duffel bag; she looked worn out but happy. Her hair was messy, probably from sleeping on the plane. She wore a t-shirt and jeans; her face looked content, as if she’d just been around the world and seen all seven wonders in one shot. She saw her family waiting, huddled together: anxious, excited, with a little fear there, fear of the unknown.
They were the only ones left, the last off the plane.
The family’s eyes searched Peggy. She smiled and pointed behind her, with her thumb, before going to hug her husband and children.
A man dressed in a big rain coat came out of the long white corridor. He was wearing a cap, covering bright blonde hair. He was pale and had dark glasses on and a scarf pulled up over his mouth. “Here he comes” Peggy said.
The whole family gasped, their breath taken from them one by one.
He was much taller, much older. They hesitated. His mother, Angela, broke off the pack. She was a stocky woman in a blue sweater, with short white-blonde hair slicked back on her round head, like dolls’ hair. Her face was bright and wide, round and soft, like a baby’s, but there was a great weight there too. In her eyes, there was a heaviness, and they seemed to look right through Johnny. Her face and her lids looked puffy from years of the ritual abuse of alcohol and cigarettes. She scrunched up her face and looked like she would cry, but no tears came out.
She went over to her boy; she thought about hugging him, but he seemed to shrink away into that big coat and scarf. She could sense his unease; she took him by the hand and told him she missed him. He lifted his head and smiled with his eyes, a sad, tired, reluctant smile and she pulled him in for a hug. They rocked back and forth as he patted his mother on the back with one hand.
His nephew, Carl, came over and took Johnny’s bag. He was around Johnny’s age now, could drive and had grown into a handsome young man. He had short light blonde hair and green eyes and wore a football shirt.
He had a bright smile and, as he took the bag from Johnny, he said, “It’s good to have you back, Johnny.”
Angela was crying now. She forced hard tears out of her puffy baby face and said, “You’ve changed so much.” She buried her face in a tissue she took from the sleeve of her sweater. .Brandon gave the camera to Carl, shook Johnny’s hand and pulled him in for a hug.
They separated and Brandon took some time to look at him and nod his head smiling. He was sizing the boy up. He could tell Johnny didn’t like to be touched; on some level he could respect that. He had no idea what the boy had been through, how he’d changed, but Johnny had all the time in the world to come out of his shell now.
“It’s good to have you back, bud, we missed you,” he said in a broad Texas accent.
Peggy came over, with her little girl Sarah on her hip. She was elated.
She smiled warmly and said, “OK, you two, enough male bonding crap, it’s time to go home.
They could all tell Johnny was guarded. Something horrible had happened to him. Someone had done something to him, changed him, maybe forever.
It was getting dark. Carl kept filming as they spilled out into the brightly lit airport parking lot. They all felt high, in that instant, taking deep swigs of night air, which rushed straight to their heads.
They all bundled into Carl’s Lincoln. They reserved a window seat for Johnny, despite the fact there wasn’t much to see: sparsely lit freeway for miles.
Carl looped around the terminal parking lot, took the exit for the 410 across Connally Loop out of San Antonio international.
The thing that stuck out to Johnny was the sky. The sun was setting through the trees. He couldn’t place it, but the sky just seemed bigger and more open. Everything in Europe had seemed small and enclosed, people building on top of each other, living like mice. Here there was lots of room; people could stretch out; they could breathe.
They kept heading east on the interstate towards Longhorn.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Peggy craned her neck around from the front passenger seat where she had Sarah on her lap. “We moved out of our old house because Brandon got a job at Keller Material. So we moved across town to Selma.” She paused as if out of breath. “Mama moved in with us there, so we’re going back there and you’re coming with us. It’s a really nice place, you’ll see.” She smiled and turned back around.
They rode the rest of the way in silence. It was as if everyone was exhausted but pleasantly so. They were all coming off a high. For them the impossible had become real. Just to share a fifteen minute car ride in silence seemed like bliss. The cool night air came in through a crack in the window. ‘He Had a Long Chain On’ played on the radio.
It got dark fast. Small, dark houses whipped by, trees and open spaces, a moon and lots of stars: more than he could ever remember seeing.
They continued east on the 401, which led north onto the 35 North East, and took the turn-off for Valhalla. It was a residential area populated by the same model white single-story houses. Every one had the same white porch. All the lawns were flat and dry and almost bald. There were no sidewalks at all. There were small white shacks, metal fences and wild, bare trees, dogs barking.
“Almost home now,” Peggy said with a big smile on her face.
Waking up the next morning, Johnny felt refreshed. He looked out the window, through the venetian blinds, at the hot Texas morning: people going off to work, kids leaving for school, dogs barking. And remnants from the old world: old push lawnmowers, cattle fencers, the smell, the trees and the grass; it all didn’t seem real.
There was a knock at his door. He was in a guest room, bare but clean: Just a double bed with cream sheets.
He opened the door tentatively and peeked out. He still didn’t feel quite right; this wasn’t home for him yet.
Peggy stood in the doorway with a cheerful smile and some breakfast: bacon and eggs on a white plate on a tray with flowers on it. “I thought you might like to eat breakfast in your room until you’re settled in. Can I come in?” She waited for his response but he just made a sound in his throat and she cut him off. “It’s OK. Here, just take it.” She shoved the tray at him. “We thought it would be fun to go shopping today and show you around town, see if you remember anything, and we can buy you some new clothes and stuff.”
“I’d like that,” Johnny said shyly as he took a bite of crispy bacon.
They got into Carl’s Lincoln again, the whole family, just like last time.
They drove under the freeway, past the old catholic school and north towards Bracken.
They stopped at a few houses along the way to see if Johnny would remember anything. He pointed to a few places, but nothing really stuck out at him. They met a few people that knew Johnny before his disappearance.
A fat guy, in a grey shirt with sweat stains, leant through the window to show Johnny a picture. In the picture, Johnny was sitting on the shoulder of his uncle, Kirk, a few years younger and a few pounds lighter. Johnny was smiling, with his fingers up in a peace sign.
Johnny smiled and told the man he was sorry but he couldn’t remember.
“That’s OK,” he said as he pushed off the car door and stepped back to watch them drive away.
Johnny made the peace sign with his fingers.
They took him to aunts and uncles and cousins, and he didn’t remember any of it; it was all gone; his mind was a blank slate.
They finally arrived at Rolling Oaks mall after a morning of terse, uncomfortable meet and greets.
The mall was the biggest in the area, although it was relatively new, but Johnny wasn’t very responsive. Their fun fizzled out. Eventually, Peggy thought, he would have to come out of his shell.
After a couple of hours of clothes shopping, they went home.
Part 2 You’re not you