"Three Easy Pieces"
John's not going to get any more relaxed than this, no matter how many more beers Jim pushes across the table. The man's tense from the top of his head all the way down, tense and scattered in that bad way that you get when all you recognize is trouble, lift your head and see it clear.
The way Jim figures it, John's earned these beers, this night of drinking with an old friend, no worrying about keeping his children safe. Can't get much safer than tucked in a pastor's spare bed, above an arsenal and with two men who know how to use those weapons and more.
Jim stands up when he finds himself talking to the dark circles under John's eyes rather than his friend. "Go on, get yourself upstairs," he says, taking the empties back without any ceremony. "Kiss your kids goodnight."
"Don't want to wake them." John kicks off his boots and staggers to the couch, stretches out and pulls the blanket across his legs. "I'll get going before they're up in the morning. Back in a couple of days."
No point trying to argue with him, tell him again that Marcia Miller won't give him the time of day, much less a look at the holy weapons she's been stockpiling. Maybe she will, who can say? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
John had looked older than he should, by ten years at least, worn and weary, but his kids are shockingly small. The way John talks about them, it's easy to forget they don't have inches to match their personalities. They're just two little boys in faded clothes, joined at the hip.
When they come into the morning light, Jim can see scratches on their faces and thin arms. Before his imagination can run away with him, he sees Sammy's sharp little nails, grimy and untended. Dean's have been bitten to the quick. Jim feels a wave of pity flood through him. What John can't do for his boys, he will, with a right good will. Charity begins at home.
Dean's watching TV with Sammy on his lap, looking dissatisfied with the three channels the rickety old set gets, picked up by an antenna that's been twisted beyond recognition.
"Dean," Jim says, holding out a finger for Sammy to latch on to. "Ow!" he gasps when Sammy decides his flesh and bone make for an excellent teething ring.
"He's still getting new teeth, Pastor Jim," Dean says reproachfully.
"Yes. So I see." He clears his throat, looking down at John's children, straining to remember what John's bride had looked like. Every woman looked her best on her wedding day, but he could remember a real beauty, a girl radiantly fair. Not much of her shine lingers on in her boys, but he can change that, give John back a piece of what he's lost.
"Dean," he says, his mind made up, "I want to give your dad a surprise. Will you help me?"
Dean's eyes narrow at the word and Sammy bounces a little on his lap, reaching for Jim's hand again.
"A good surprise. I promise."
"Okay, Pastor Jim," Dean finally says, even cracking a little bit of a smile.
Sammy, meanwhile, bursts into tears when he can't catch hold of the finger. Well. Into each life, a little rain must fall.
"First things first. A good, nourishing breakfast. Mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body," he announces, setting down a pot of oatmeal in the middle of the table. Dean eyes it suspiciously and Sammy tilts his head to the side. Jim strokes the younger boy's chubby cheek with a bandaged finger. "What are you doing, Sammy?"
Sammy just shakes his head, and Dean's too busy smiling at him to bother to translate for Jim. Sammy holds his pose for a long minute. "My mind don't make sounds," Sammy announces.
"Do this, Sammy," Dean suggests, putting his hand over his heart.
"Oh!" Sammy's eyes get round. "Oh, I got a sound!"
"Yes. Good. Eat up, boys." Jim dishes out the oatmeal, then sprinkles brown sugar over each serving.
Dean mixes it all up and starts eating as told, but Sammy only finishes the layer of sugar. "Yuck!" he says when he gets to plain oatmeal and pushes the bowl away.
Dean abandons his own bowl and comes around the table to stand by his brother's chair. Sammy can't turn without toppling off the stack of phone books he's sitting on, but Jim sees his eyes tracking Dean. "Hey Sammy," Dean says. "Wanna play hide-and-seek?"
"Yeah!" Sammy holds out his arms to be lifted off his seat. But Dean goes to the refrigerator and fetches the milk. He pours a generous dollop into Sammy's bowl and mixes up the oatmeal.
"Okay. You gotta find the milk," Dean says and Sammy grins and pretty much inhales the contents of the bowl.
"I win!" Sammy crows when he gets to the little puddle of white at the bottom of the bowl.
"Good job, Sammy," Jim says. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you know."
The oatmeal might have been a mistake, after all. Sammy's diaper smells like something that should be consigned to hell, and Dean's blithely ignoring it. Jim finally can't stand the stink and hauls Sammy up, holds him at arm's length, and changes him as best he can, gagging until his eyes water.
Sammy squirms and cries the entire time, but as soon as he's allowed to sit up again, he's all smiles. Strike while the iron is hot is Jim's motto, and he gets the nail clippers out of the medicine cabinet before leaving the bathroom and heading back downstairs.
Dean's trying to insinuate his head into the narrow space between the back of the grandfather clock in the living room and the wall, most likely to investigate its workings. He's apparently already dismissed as uninteresting the pendulum, accessible by the front glass panel. Jim steers him back to the kitchen with one hand on the top of his head, and without warning Sammy lunges down in his arms to pat Dean's head too.
He gets a firmer grip on Sammy as he sits down and beckons Dean to stand in front of him. "Let me see your hands, Dean," he says, knowing that Sammy will only learn from Dean's good example. Dean obediently stretches his hands forward but there's nothing to cut. "Toes?"
Dean blinks and then sits down on the ground to pull his raggedy little tube socks off. His toenails are a disgrace and Jim takes one small foot in hand and begins to clip the nails. "See, Sammy?" he says. "This doesn't hurt at all. Right, Dean?"
"Yeah. It's okay, Sammy." Sammy looks puzzled more than alarmed, but he starts to shriek when Jim reaches for his hands.
"Nooooooooo!" Sammy wails as though they're trying to make a martyr out of him, his face going brick-red in an alarmingly short time. He's too good at working himself up to even hear Dean's soft, soothing words, gasping and howling so that Jim can barely hear himself think.
It takes him a few moments - and a few slashes from Sammy's claws - before he realizes that Dean's now speaking to him. "Pastor Jim, hold him upside-down."
How that will help, he has no idea, but desperate times call, he thinks, for desperate measures. He flips the child upside-down, one arm locked firmly around the protuberant belly, small feet trapped against his shoulder. And suddenly Sammy's giggling, squealing with delight, enjoying his adventure so much that Dean's swift, careful work with the clippers barely registers.
The moment Dean is done, he sets Sammy down, right side up. Sammy raises his arms to him, looks beseechingly at him, and says, "More?"
That look is going to earn Sammy all sorts of undeserved favors, Jim knows. What goes up must come down, but surely it can go up again? He hoists Sammy aloft once more, pleased as punch that both boys look so happy in his care, grins lighting up their scratched faces. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Goodness, people in a shopping center can certainly be uncharitable. One woman is simply following him around to snatch the clothes out of his hand. If Sammy would only stand still, he could get a better sense of what size he needs to buy.
But Sammy has found the women's department and is making it his own personal playground. Jim sees Dean tailing his little brother, boxing him in before he can get tangled up in anyone's legs. He also sees a brassiere on Sammy's head, but ignores that and turns back to the piles of neatly folded shirts, trying to decide between green- and blue-striped.
Sammy comes scampering up and barrels straight into Jim's legs. Before Sammy can bounce away and take off running again, Jim scoops him up and unfastens the brassiere. He tickles Sammy's squishy belly a little to keep him happy and tries to hold a shirt up against him. The green-striped shirt looks like it will fit perfectly.
"Deeeee!" Sammy bellows in his ear and Jim turns to find Dean looking up at him.
"Pastor Jim," Dean says, "are you buyin' clothes for Sammy? Cause you gotta give him room to grow."
Of course. He should have remembered that children grow like weeds. Dean's already lost that baby look that Sammy still carries; Dean looks like an adult who happens to be miniature-size. "Thank you, Dean." Something in Dean's phrasing strikes him. "I'm buying clothes for both of you," he says.
Dean looks startled for a moment and mumbles "Thank you" very quietly, then pulls out a shirt from a pile near him. "Sammy'll like this one," he says.
A glance at the price tag tells Jim the shirt doesn't cost much at all. If he's going to do this, he should do it right. "Good job, Dean. What about pants? A fine young man like this needs pants and socks and shoes and a jacket, right?" He chucks Sammy's soft cheek and gets distracted by Dean's look of wonder as the whole store is laid out in front of him.
Sammy chooses that moment to bite down on his finger and Dean sighs and says, "You better let me take him."
John's car is too loud to ignore, and Dean brightens the moment he hears the telltale roar, jumping up and running to the window. "Dad!" Dean exclaims, launching himself at the figure coming through the front door.
Jim looks his friend over as he tries gently to disengage the child from his leg. John looks weary, dispirited, like tangling with Marcia Miller was biting off more than he could chew.
He watches John register that his sons are decked out in brand-new overalls, shirts, and shoes, that Sammy's playing intently with a set of wooden blocks that were not in the house a few days ago, and that Dean's got the innards of Jim's watch spread out on the coffee table. This is the critical moment; John's got good sense, but the devil's own pride too, and there's no telling if he'll take this as friendship or charity.
John cups Dean's cheek, strides over to poke Sammy in the belly, eliciting a quick giggle, and looks back over at Jim. "Thank you," he says, and Dean, still pressed against his side, nods to double the acknowledgment.
"Jim!" Sammy shouts happily as he knocks the blocks over. John starts to laugh and Jim prays that his friend will always find such comfort in his children.
"Happy birthday, John," he says, and picks Sammy up for his bedtime story.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.