So I've always kinda thought that John's longing for Jessica is as much about her representation of the person he could have been as it is about her. I still think this is true but now I wonder if she was so much more than the sixth month relationship we see on screen, also he must have done something to make Jessica's mum think he was a bad egg when we all know he was likely to be adorable before the CIA corrupted him. This is my Wonderboy: Origins story. Also, since we know Reese can quote Springsteen (2.06 The High Road), I've used that knowledge unashamedly in this. I don't own POI or the work of The Boss. I promise it's not a songfic.
Authors Note update: So I wrote this fic before I reached the end of the end of the series, using the info given in 3.1 Liberty and 3.11 Lethe. (Also the two episodes that gave me the Springsteen connection.) As a result I didn't have all the info on John's past that I do now. I chose to use Jim Caviezel's birthdate (and his Irish heritage), and as a result, his father dies a little earlier than it turns out he did. Sorry for the discrepancy, I promise all other details have been meticulously researched.
Chapter 1: Born In The USA
There are some songs that stop you in your tracks. There's something about the intro, an incredible guitar riff or lyrics that speak to you like it was written from your own thoughts. You'll freeze what you're doing, concentrate on the song and sit with it until the last notes fade. And then whenever you hear that song you'll remember exactly where you were, exactly what you were feeling when you first heard it.
It was the summer of 1984 and John Feris, the boy who would eventually become John Reese, was furious. The evening was warm, after an unusually hot day. The sun was going down towards the tree line behind the row of small houses that lined the wide street. His mother was in the kitchen, baking for a church fete, her small town transistor radio sat on the windowsill, turned up as high as it would go to drown out the sound of John angrily slamming the basketball against the concrete of their drive.
The radio DJ announced the next song, a hot new release from the album of the same name. He promised that this was going to be the soundtrack to the summer, and then the first lyrics tore through the air in an urgent and gravelly voice, "Born down in a dead man's town, The first kick I took was when I hit the ground..."
'Dead man's town', John thought to himself wryly. Sounds about right. He listened as the song continued, weaving its story of a young boy sent to war, the pointlessness of it all, and the utter destain he got treated with when he got back. It was a story he knew too well. He glanced through the window to his mother who had been washing up at the sink, she'd frozen too. And he caught her as she hastily dried her eye with the back of her soap-sudded hand.
John had stopped the violent abuse of his ball by throwing it at the hoop, scoring a three pointer but then catching it and standing with it clutched to his chest while he took in the lyrics. He was breathing heavy, covered in sweat, his tall but wiry body drained with the long hours of practice he'd put in since coming home from school. He hated school with a passion, but never so much as today, when his gym coach had told him to concentrate on his other studies because he'd never be good enough for a basketball scholarship. The news had been devastating to the fifteen year old boy, he knew his mother didn't have enough money to send him to college, so it was a scholarship or nothing. And he couldn't be a nothing, following the other boys to the factories and the mills like their fathers, like his father, like the young man in the song.
He thought bitterly about his father, as he often did. The man had joined the army when he'd barely been of legal age, only a few years older than John was now. From the way his mother had told it, he'd been the most dashing of all the recruits, and the bravest. The war in Vietnam was just starting and he was determined to be a hero. By all accounts, he had been. It was as though he couldn't get enough of the war, was deployed four times, even though the last time they'd offered to pension him out early because of a shrapnel wound to his shoulder, he still went back.
He'd come home with a ton of medals and a group of buddies he'd met out there, some of whom had nowhere to come home to, so he invited them to stay in their tiny weatherboard house. The mighty war hero had gone back to work at the refinery and the evenings were spent round the kitchen table as the comrades in arms smoked and reminisced, his mother stood on the sidelines ready to get them another beer or listen and smile at an anecdote that was deemed to be particularly hilarious. John had been in awe of his father, he'd often sat him on his lap while he entertained his guests. John had barely known him, he'd been at war for John's whole life, but he'd felt the love he'd had for him in that strong embrace.
It had lasted barely two months, and then one day the refinery foreman had rung the doorbell. John hadn't heard the conversation but he'd known as soon as his mother had sunk to her knees in the hallway that he wasn't coming home. John had still been a month away from his fifth birthday.
He'd worshiped his father and his memory, the same way his mother did for a very long time. But now that he was almost sixteen and was starting to think about his own choices, the man made him angry. It was as though the army had been everything, even after he'd come home. Why had he been so eager to stay in the war, had he not loved them enough to come home when the opportunity arose? Even if he'd still had that refinery accident, it would have meant he'd have more precious time with them before it had happened. Now when he thought back to those nights sat round the kitchen table, he didn't think of the beaming smile of his father so much as the wistful lonely smile of his mother left on the sidelines. When he'd been younger, he'd wanted to be in the army just like his dad, but he had seen the look of horror on his mothers face when he'd voiced the thought and had decided there was no way he'd put his mom through that again.
Problem was, what now? And the only answer was a scholarship. He knew most of his classmates weren't thinking about this stuff yet, but he hated this town so much he needed an escape plan. When he'd asked his mom she'd been predictably vague, "Don't worry honey, you'll be alright." Alright? What did that mean? It meant he'd get a job down at the refinery like everybody else, he'd seethed. "There's nothing wrong with that." She'd replied and he'd nearly thrown something. There was everything wrong with that! She'd probably taken one look at his test scores and decided her son would never be a doctor or an airline pilot, in her head he was going to have a good honest job at the refinery and raise her some grandkids. His test scores were a bone of contention with himself and frustration for a number of his teachers. It's not that he wasn't bright, he knew, it was just that whenever he was sat in class for more than five minutes his attention started to wander and he started to fidget. The only thing he seemed able to focus on with any intensity was basketball. And today he'd been told that he wasn't good enough at that either.
The song was a warning, he decided, throwing the ball again and scoring another basket. It was a reminder that he had to get out of this life any way he could, and if that meant practicing basketball every day until he was good enough for that scholarship then that's what he'd do.
He carried on working the ball around the drive and shooting hoops until it had long since gone dark and his mother called him in, reminding him he had another day of school before the weekend. He nearly complained, but thought better of it and did as he was told. He kissed her goodnight and went to have a shower before bed.
He lay down in his little box of a room and stared at the posters on the walls. He'd adorned his plain blue walls with posters of all his personal sporting heroes from the NBA, NFL and MLB in the hope that they'd inspire him to push himself harder. Of course some of the posters hid an inspiration of a different kind, if you lifted up the corners that weren't taped to the wall, you'd find a selection of his favourites taken from old Playboy magazines that had been passed around the boy's locker room at school. Girls in bikinis on a beach photo shoot or draped over motorbikes, that sort of thing, nothing his God-fearing mother would find too unforgivable. This way he could go to sleep dreaming of his sporting stars, and if he couldn't sleep, well, that's what the girls were for.
He couldn't sleep tonight, but he knew it was going to take a lot more than working out a few of his teenage frustrations before he relaxed. It was eleven pm, he had to be up at five for his paper round before school, but a night of staring at his four walls was going to drive him crazy. He waited until he saw the light under his door from the hallway go out, signalling his mother had gone to bed, before he got up and threw on a pair of jeans, a tee shirt and his sneakers and stuffed his Walkman into his back pocket. His window, like the rest of the house was old and creaked, but he knew just how to open it so that it didn't make a noise. From his window, if he reached out he could just grasp the houses flagpole, where the Stars and Stripes had flown at half mast since the day his father had died. From there he could easily slide to the ground and in minutes he was gone.
Hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, he made his way down to Clark's Creek Park, Van Halen blaring in his headphones. There was about as much to do in this town after dark as his own bedroom but at least he was out of that oppressive house. Even after ten years he felt the ghost of his father still lingering there. He got to the park and disappeared into the trees, following the well worn path down to the creek, unsure what he'd do when he got there. What he really wanted was a car, to be able to turn up the music and gun it down the highway until the speed and the dark made him feel better, perhaps he'd just take off and never come back. But it would be a long time until he got a car, if ever, at this rate, his mom couldn't even afford one of her own and making a couple of dollars a day throwing papers from the back of his bike was not going to cut it.
The last song on the cassette faded out and he was left with the soft whirring of tape scrolling through the machine. As he stopped it to change sides he heard it something up ahead. His first thought was a bear, they often came to town looking for food and there was a family of them known to live in the park, but he soon realised it was a human. There, stood down by the creek he could see someone with long blonde hair cascading down her back to a slim waist. John was going to ignore her, he wasn't great with talking to girls and he wanted to be left alone, but then he heard her sigh, and it sounded sad, so instead he slung his headphones round his neck and approached her.
He made sure to make a noise as he approached so that he didn't spook her, but she had her headphones on too and didn't notice him until he got close. When she realised he was there, she jumped and turned around, taking a second to recognise him from school.
"John! You scared me." She admonished, pulling off her headphones so she could speak to him.
"Jessica, what are you doing out here?" His heart skipped a beat, surprised that one of the prettiest girls in his year even knew his name. But he wasn't going to question that now, he was far more concerned with the deepening bruise on her cheekbone. "What happened?" He nearly reached out to touch it but stopped himself.
"Nothing." She said hastily, pulling up a hand to cover it. But the move backfired because the sleeve of her long sleeved tee shirt slipped and he saw another bruise encircling her wrist. It was hard to tell in the dark but it looked like a handprint.
"Who did this to you?" He asked gently.
"Don't worry about it." She said, drawing her hair behind her ear. She turned away and sat down on a fallen log beside the creek. Tentatively, John sat beside her.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" She asked.
John shrugged, "I just needed to get out of the house. Doesn't seem important now."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I needed to get out of the house too." Jessica said quietly.
"Who hurt you Jess? Was it that bastard Aaron?" Aaron was one of the school's lesser known football players, and the guy that Jessica had been dating for the last few months. He was loud, with loud friends and took pride in his 'attitude problem' which he thought made him cool. John would love an excuse for a fight with him, although he didn't doubt that he would come off worse. John had the height advantage but was still too skinny.
Jess shook her head. "Aaron's not a bastard. And it wasn't him. Why do you care anyway?"
"Because whoever it was had no right to hurt you." John said fiercely.
Jessica stared down at her sandalled feet as she spoke. "It was my dad."
That made John even angrier but he held it in. "I'm not afraid of your dad either. If you want me to I could..."
"No." She shook her head vehemently. "Don't, you'll only make it worse. Ah, John," she sighed, "you're never afraid of anyone, but you always take a beating. Why do you always feel the need to stick up for people?"
"Surprised you noticed." John smiled at her.
"What? Everybody at school notices. John Feris, mysterious Protector of the Weaks and Geeks."
John laughed gently at that. He hadn't heard the nickname before.
"Why do you bother? You're not friends with any of them."
"I just don't think it's right that's all. Look, does your mom know what your dad did?" He asked, trying to get back on topic.
"Yeah, she said I shouldn't have made him angry." She said bitterly. "I don't want to think about it, can we talk about something else?"
"Err, yeah sure." John nodded nervously. He wondered what on earth he had in common with this girl, he quickly realised talking about school would make him appear lame. "What were you listening to?" He indicated her Walkman.
"The new Bruce Springsteen album. Are you a fan?"
John smiled, "I'm starting to get an appreciation for him, yeah."
They spent the next hour huddled together, twisting her headphones so that they could have an earpiece each as they listened to the new album in its entirety. The more John listened, the more he found a lot of the songs seemed to speak to him. The characters in them were from small towns with little in the way of prospects but still had the same drive to escape their circumstances that he did. Jessica loved them and he found her enthusiasm infectious. She told him how she was desperate to go to a concert but that her parents thought she was too young. She talked about his music for ages and John listened to her attentively, drinking in their closeness, trying to commit the moment to memory in the minutest detail.
When the album finished, Jessica said she had to get home, so John walked her back. She made him stop before he got there in case her parents were still up and he watched her from behind a tree as she dashed home and snuck back in, closing the door behind her silently. He walked back to his own home, eight blocks back the way he'd come, with his thoughts filled with her.
By the time he got home he only had a few hours to sleep before getting up for his paper round. He completed his round slower than usual and then had to hurry, almost missing the bus to school. The day went the same as most others, except this time he was even more distracted than usual. In history, he sat in his usual seat at the back of the class with his head down, watching through the hair that fell in front of his face, as Jessica and Aaron flirted their way through the whole period.
Jessica was as bright and smiling as she always was, she'd carefully covered her bruises with make up so you could only see anything was wrong if you knew to look. She spent the day clinging onto the arm of Aaron and joking with her friends. John spent the whole day trying to catch her eye but to no avail. He was starting to think that he'd dreamt the events of the previous evening, until the final bell rang for the end of the day.
John was at his locker, dumping his book bag before going to get changed for basketball practice, when Jessica sidled up to him. She glanced over her shoulder as though to make sure she wasn't seen talking to him. "Hey John." She smiled sweetly, "thank you for last night." As she walked away she pulled something out of her bag and pressed it into his palm. John watched her walk away and catch up to a girl friend before looking down at his hand. It was a home-recorded cassette. He smiled as he read her carefully printed handwriting on the paper sleeve, she'd copied the new Springsteen album for him. He went to practice with a smile that not even his hated coach could wipe from his face.
There was another month of school left, but fate seemed to conspire against him and he never got the chance to speak to her. Aaron was always there, and they seemed to be getting more serious by the day. He tried sneaking out and going to the creek a few times but she was never there. And then the summer hit and she spent the whole summer at camp with Aaron.
John spent the summer working. His mother's friend had a farm on the outskirts of town, so after his paper round he would cycle out there and muck out stables or stack hay bales for a few hours each day. When he got home he stripped down to his shorts and practiced basketball in his yard for hours, sometimes with the few friends of his that also hadn't gone away to camp but most often alone. By the time the evening came he was exhausted, and spent the evenings just sitting on his porch watching the sun go down while he listened to his Walkman. He often played the tape that Jessica had made him, and wondered what she was doing. He knew he was torturing himself with thoughts of her, but just couldn't bring himself to stop.