Sally faintly could hear the sounds of John coming home downstairs, first the front door opening, and as quietly as can be was shut and locked for the night. Next she heard the heavy thuds of his workbooks getting taken off, and placed where they were usually kept on a mat inside the small sun room that was right off the main landing of their two story townhouse they had just finished paying off officially three years ago. Still half awake, Sally's long eyelashes fluttered against sleep, and she eyed the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. It was a little after three in the morning. Usually whenever John worked at the station it was a full 24 hour shift. Tonight he had been called into a call at a high-rise apartment building since they were short staffed since Brian transferred out and was working for Rimgale. From what John told her the same bullshit was going on between the two brothers, and it was just expected to finally reach a climax after all this time. They had Stephen over just a few nights ago for dinner, and she could tell things had gone from bad to worse for him in these last few weeks. Usually whenever John came in, he would wash up in the bathroom first, before collapsing beside her, and snaking those long tanned muscular arms around her. It was one thing she had gotten used to in the last seven years of marriage to John. He loved to squeeze her tight, even when they were sleeping. Early, when they had just started dating, and Sally was truly trying to wrap her head around the fact she was falling for a man twenty years older than her. She remembered asking him one night when he was staying over, both cuddling on the sofa watching a movie, why he always held onto her like life depended on it. Here John smirked, looking down at her, his eyes squinting like they usually did, and he whispered in her ear that he knew he had himself a good catch, there was no way in Hell he was gonna let this one get away. Both started kissing, and less than a month following that he proposed to her in the same exact spot, holding her like he usually did. Now Sally had gotten so used to it, she found it was a comfort and actually slept a million times better curled up beside him, listening to him breath, and faintly still smelling smoke in his hair even if he had showered.
She heard him climb the stairs, but as soon as he entered the room something wasn't right. Instead of heading straight to the bathroom he headed straight to her side of the bed and sat on the edge. Instantly Sally snapped fully awake knowing something was wrong.
She mumbled, half asleep, blinking and reaching blindly to turn the lamp that sat on the nightstand on. The second the warm faint light lit up that side of the bedroom, Sally saw John sitting on the edge of her side of the bed, and saw his face, and the tears streaming down the side of his face. This image alone made her sit straight up, and feel a cold hold grasp around her heart as she stared at her husband. She had only seen tears of happiness from John in all the years they had known each other, and tonight as she stared at him, a man nearly twenty plus years her senior, she truly saw his age, worn raw on his handsome tanned lined face and it frightened her.
"Jesus Christ John what is it?"
She reached forward taking a hold of his firm muscular arm. He was wearing one of his blue faded station T-shirts, and she could faintly smell smoke on his graying hair. John continued staring forward at the brick walls of their bedroom. John had bought this townhouse in the early 1980's, and just last year they had officially paid it off. John had done most of the remodeling to the place, usually having the guys like Stephen or Santos spending days off, relaying brick or drywall, painting, or sanding and finishing the original hardwood floors. It was big, but they had made it theirs. Once Sally officially started living there, John said often that she actually made it a home. Up until then it was just a bachelor pad for an aging fireman. John claimed he bought the house as a project in hopes of maybe someday fixing it enough to flip it. After a few years he found he preferred it over his apartment downtown, and ended up spending most of his spare time when he wasn't at the station working construction on it. First he started with the roof, replaced a few ceiling beams, did the baseboards, and as the years went by tackled one room after the next. Usually most rooms were sheeted off with plastic, with cans of paint and tools laying around. John only really used the kitchen, and upstairs, and the place didn't really looked that lived in. In fact, on John and Sally's third date when he invited her back here, he was amused to see he didn't even own a television as she sat on an old leather sofa holding the beer he had just handed her. When she remarked on this, he smirked, cracking open his own beer, before settling down beside her and motioned with his bottle towards an old record player hooked up with stereo speakers.
"That's all the entertainment I need darling."
Sally remembered rising and kneeling carefully where his stacks of vinyl were, smirking at all of the artist who appeared to be at the height of their stardom more than twenty years ago.
"Some of these records are older than I am!"
John laughed before rising, and placing his beer down on the coffee table littered with paperwork, and coffee mugs. Here he walked over, thumbs hooked in his belt loops as he leaned down and laughed.
"Hey some of these are classics...watch this..."
He reached down grabbing one, slipping it out of his cardboard sleeve, and went to the turntable. Seconds later the room filled with soft music from the 1970's. The song seemed familiar, as if Sally had heard it a few times before but couldn't pinpoint the artist. Smiling, she slowly rose as John offered his hand.
"Come here kiddo."
There they slowly began dancing.
It was that night they first made love on the sofa. Now just a few years later, the house was finished. Nice shinny hardwood floors, and dark woodworking. The walls painted white, and the furniture all cozy and comfortable. John loved turning this massive empty shell of a house into their home, and it was now warm and inviting. The walls lined with framed photos of themselves over the course of their relationship, along with their friends. Sally's pottery sat on end tables with decorated vases, books, and tiny carnival glass figures. Rugs were laid down, and the house as big as it seemed was welcoming and often a main hangout for the guys to venture to on days off for poker, or to watch whatever sports game was on in the den once Sally insisted on a TV. Now at this exact moment, John stared at the brick walls of their bedroom, eyes casting out at the windows with the light frabic curtains, and the wind chimes Sally had made, faintly jingling by the spring outside breeze. John was a kind and gentle man, exactly what somebody like Sally needed. She knew what people thought on both sides with the age difference, but both neither cared. They were exactly what they needed for each other, and had spent this time falling deeper and deeper in love with each other. Sally was a nurse over at the emergency clinic three days a week. Nursing school wasn't exactly where she wanted to go for that direction in her life, but her aunt who had raised her since her parents died when she was two had insisted she didn't waste her inheritance on such a silly thing as art school. So Sally went to nursing school to be practical, but took night courses for art as more of a hobby than anything. Once she graduated she was living with her boyfriend from college who had a hair trigger temper. Things had gotten worse over the years in school while he trained to be an EMT. She knew he was using drugs, and was extremely jealous. The new friends Sally did have begged her to leave him, but after her aunt had died of a stroke a year after she graduated, she honestly didn't have anyone else to go to. She found herself working long hours at the clinic, interning at the hospital, and still trying to be there whenever her boyfriend got home, never able to predict whenever he would be in a frighting horrible mood. He began controlling her schedule, complaining there wasn't enough money coming in, yet screamed at her whenever she took an extra shift. She wasn't allowed to have friends or really have any other life besides him. When the abusive started, it seemed almost like a Godsend that John happened to walk into her life.
He came into the clinic to treat a minor cut he received on the job. From the second Sally laid eyes on her, she truly believed in love at first sight. Her first reaction was that he had some Native American in his blood with his bone structure and skin tone. She thought for an older gentleman he had the kindest looking eyes, and from the second he spoke to her, patiently sitting by her station to get stitched by, she thought she would melt. He was charming, funny, and had joked about the injury as she asked him about his job. Always on his way to work she always saw the local firetrucks screaming by. They had talked for a bit, making light on things, before finally he was all stitched and bandaged up.
"Well that's it Mr..."
"Adcox, John Adcox but you can call me axe."
"Axe huh? Like a fireman's axe?"
Sally asked laughing. John smiled, his eyes squinting and Sally knew at that exact moment she had fallen for a complete stranger.
"Yeah I guess you're right Miss..."
"Jackson, but you can call me Sally...sorry no cool nickname."
"Oh I'm sure we can think of something kiddo. Thanks for the stitch."
He winked at her, stood and smiled before walking away. Sally sat almost in awe, before she looked up and saw him standing by the main nursing station to sign himself out. He was staring at her, and once their eyes locked he grinned. Sally nervously laughed before dropping her eyes and feeling her cheeks blush. She wouldn't see him for another three weeks, until he walked in with another fellow firefighter, a handsome younger man named Stephen. The second they walked in, John helping his friend walk, he spotted Sally and lit up.
"Hey kiddo! How ya doing?!"
Sally smiled at him, remembering exactly the butterflies she felt when he winked at her. Seeing him made her remember how handsome he really was, and truly how miserable she was with her current boyfriend Ryan. They were fighting all the time, and besides working, all she did was clean up their tiny apartment, serve him beer, and deal with his outbursts since he wasn't getting anywhere in his career. He resented the fact she had her inheritance money from her parents, and even after paying for school, she still had a huge chunk of money left, and would only touch her savings in case of emergencies. It was actually getting so bad now, Sally was wearing sleeves despite the warmer weather outside. With no real close friends, she really didn't know what to do. Ryan said if she ever tried to leave him, or tell anyone he would kill her. The scary thing was, she believed him.
Seeing John instantly made her feel safe. She couldn't explain it, but for the past two weeks she had been not only exhausted, but depressed over how badly things had gotten with Ryan. Just last night he came home and flipped the kitchen table since he had gotten into a fight with his boss. When he demanded a beer, Sally told him he had drank all of them, and she needed to head downstairs to the mini-mart to pick up a 6-pack. Here Ryan grabbed her by the hair, and slammed her against the wall calling her a useless bitch. When Sally tried to push him off, he grabbed her arm hard enough to break it. Now today she wore long sleeved scrubs. Seeing those squinted slanted handsome eyes of his, and that charming smile...she somehow forget everything that was happening.
John brought over Stephen, who was mumbling under his breath, and swearing as John laughed, holding onto him. Sally walked over, holding her clipboard.
"Mr. Adcox, to what do I owe the pleasure to..."
John smiled, before motioning to the younger man.
"This is Stephen McCaffrey, one of the best damned firefighters in Chicago, just like his pop God rest his soul. I've known little Stevie his whole life, and despite how many times I tell him a stairwell isn't stable, his foolish reckless thick head runs up it. We think he might have sprained his ankle."
Stephen rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"It isn't sprained, I just twisted it..."
John smiled at Sally as he carefully sat Stephen down.
"Mind taking a look kiddo?"
She wheeled over her seat, leaning down, and rolling up Stephen's pant leg. John meanwhile stood by, hands on his hips smirking.
"See, didn't I tell you this trip to the clinic wouldn't be a complete waste. The scenery is awfuly pretty."
Sally glanced up smiling, feeling color rise in her cheeks. Stephen rolled his eyes.
"God Axe, worse than a cowboy in a bad B movie..."
Sally and John both started cracking up as Stephen sat back shaking his head.
An hour later, Stephen was discharged with a minor sprain, and his ankle wrapped tight. Sally walked with John to the main lobby as John pushed him in a wheelchair despite his protests on being able to walk. Once they reached Stephen's truck, they loaded Stephen in, before John turned towards her and smiled.
"As always, a pleasure kiddo."
He took her hand, and gently kissed the top of it. Sally stood back feeling her entire body tingle. In the last hour they spent the time making small talk, mostly small little details about themselves and their jobs. Stephen was taken into X-ray, and John sat beside Sally talking, and making her laugh. In this time she had learned he had been with the fire department nearly thirty years. He had been born, and raised in Chicago, owned a house just a few blocks away from his station, number 17. He had remarked when Stephen had been wheeled out that his father had been his best friend, and had died saving his life. Stephen's little brother had witnessed the whole thing, and since their mother died just a few years later due to cancer, he had helped raise them along with a couple of relatives in the old neighborhood. As soon as Stephen became a firefighter, he had worked with him over at 17.
"We're best friends now, and the scary thing is, he's the spitting image of his old man. I swear to God sometimes I think I'm talking to Dennis."
She could see the kindness and compassion behind his eyes, and while they waited on Stephen they grabbed a coffee near the vending machines. She talked a little bit about the clinic, and how her parents had died when she was younger. Now standing by the car, she really couldn't believe how fast this hour had flown by. Faintly she could smell his aftershave.
"So, same place tomorrow?"
She joked. John laughed before suddenly Sally's name was called out so loudly, Sally nearly jumped. John and her turned as Ryan came walking over, eyes wild. Sally felt her heart drop, before Ryan walked over, his eyes looking John up and down.
"I got locked out and need to borrow your keys...what are you doing out in the parking-lot?"
Sally felt so nervous, her palms began to sweat. Nervously she stood back, crossing her arms, and dropping her eyes.
"Um, this is John and...Stephen..."
She motioned to the truck.
John stood his ground and looked at Ryan before offering his hand.
"Pleased to meet you..."
"Ryan, Sally's boyfriend..."
John nodded, looking as Ryan slowly put his arm around Sally's slumped shoulders, drawing her in to him tight. Instantly she felt his fingers squeeze her arm where the skin was tender from the night before. John stared at them, eyes staring at the two of them, and instantly Sally knew without him even saying a word or changing his stone-set expression that he didn't like Ryan. They stood in silence for a few seconds before finally John nodded, letting his hand down once Ryan rudely refused to shake it.
"Is that so?"
Ryan smirked before John stared at them.
"EMT huh? That's a tough job, surprised I haven't run into you around town."
Ryan didn't say a word, before John changed his glance to Sally, where his look softened, and he smiled.
"See you around kiddo."
Ryan glared, squeezing Sally even tighter.
"Ya see you around old man."
John didn't even give a reaction as he circled around to the driver's side of the truck, and got in. Stephen stared at them though the passenger window, as John started the engine, backed up and continued looking at Sally. Once the truck left the parking-lot, Ryan spun her around, and gave her a shake.
"So you're into old fire fighters now huh?"
That night Sally got the worse beating of her life by Ryan. Before work the next morning, he grabbed her by the jaw, squeezing tight, and reminded her if anyone asked what happened, she would lie and say she fell down the stairs. Limping into work, Sally prayed the heavy extra two layers of makeup would cover the bruises on her neck. She had worn a turtleneck underneath her scrubs, but truly thought he must have busted a few of her ribs. She was sore, and was too scared to do anything about it in case questions got asked. Once she arrived to work, she was grateful nobody seemed to notice how slow she was moving, and breathed a sigh of relief when she was assigned to do inventory on the meds out back.
The morning crawled by. Sally dry swallowed a few pain pills that she knew she could risk taking, and tried to not let the awful ache in her side cause her to break down crying. Mid-afternoon, while she was counting packages of gauze, she heard the smooth kind voice and she froze.
Turning, Sally saw John standing there in a white T-shirt and jeans, his gray hair combed back. Staring at him, Sally nervously stared at him.
"Sorry for showing up again, I come with no injuries, just an apology. I hope I didn't cause any trouble between you and your boyfriend yesterday."
Sally suddenly felt on the verge of bursting out into tears. She stared at him, before she avoided eye contact, and stared down at the floor.
"Oh, no it's..."
Suddenly that's when everything seemed to let go inside of her. Instantly she felt her words hitch, before tears welled up in her eyes without any control whatsoever. She swayed for a second, before she broke down completely, sobbing as she lowered her head. Instantly John was at her side.
He put his arm around her when Sally tensed, and hissed out when he brushed against her side. John stared down at her, before taking a step back. There, he stared down at her before she felt his hand on her turtleneck. It pulled back a little, and John stepped close to her, looking down at the ugly reddish blue bruises that trailed her neck, and down to her collarbone. John showed no emotion at all, he put on the same face he had on yesterday in front of Ryan, stone-set. He then very gently, unlike Ryan at all, lifted her chin with his finger, making her look up at him.
"How bad is it?'
Sally was ready to pull away and snap at him, saying she was fine, but instead something crumbled inside of her. She needed to tell somebody about the Hell she had been trapped in, and somehow at this exact moment staring at John's gentle eyes, she gave up completely. Staring up, tears streaming down her face, she took a step to the side and lifted her shirt, revealing the ugly bruises around the ace bandages she had carefully put around her this morning. John's smooth dry hands very faintly traced the line of bruises and welts on her side.
"I think your ribs are broken..."
Sally dropped her eyes as more tears streamed down her face.
"Awhile now, but last night was the worst."
Carefully John gathered her against him, his arms around her, but not tight to hurt her. She broke down completely as she sobbed against him. John rubbed her back, allowing her to just completely let everything go. He whispered in her ear that everything was okay, and nobody was going to hurt her. After a few minutes she settled down, sniffling as John stared down at her.
"We're going to get your ribs looked at and then we're calling up the police."
"I can't he'll kill me..."
John then reached forward, gently tucking her loose hair behind her ear before he gently smiled.
"Shhh...trust me kiddo, I swear I won't let anybody ever hurt you again."
That afternoon ended completely differently than she expected when she woke up that morning, but that was a different story. It did end with John busting Ryan's jaw, and Ryan getting arrested. In the end Ryan was fired, and left the city within a week. John during that time had been there for her, a complete yet kind stranger. Less than a month later they went on their first official "date". Sally during this time had put a restraining order on Ryan, scared out of her mind that he might come back to get her. John had offered for her to stay at his place, but she knew for the first time in her life she needed to stand her ground and be strong. She was embarrassed and ashamed, but John reassured her that she had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Ryan was a no good punk, who was a coward who hit smart, beautiful women he was threatened by. Work had been very supportive, and Sally even saw a councilor. She counted herself lucky, in the end it cost her boatload of bruises, a few cracked ribs, and sprains...she knew if she had stayed with him it could have gotten a whole lot worse. Still, whenever John wasn't working he would give her a call when she shift ended. He would call to check up on her. It was some unnamed system to check and see if she got home all right, if she didn't answer he knew there was trouble. He would talk with her for about ten minutes, mostly about their day. He would always get her to laugh, and had been sweet enough to deliver flowers to her every Saturday of that month. Finally, one evening he was at her front door, having just gotten out of work. He smiled and asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat at a local burger joint down the street. They went, and somehow Sally felt as if she had known John her whole life. He was fascinating, and told vivid exciting stories. He was easygoing and a total gentleman. When he walked her back, Sally smiled and looked at him.
"How old are you?
John smiled, before he put his hands on his hips.
"And how old are you little lady?"
John chuckled and shook his head.
"Ah, to be twenty-three again."
"John, I...just wanted to thank you for everything you did...you've been so kind and I'm sure you're not interested but I was wondering if you wanna...well like go out on a real date next week when you're off."
John raised an eyebrow before he softly smiled.
"Kiddo, I'm an old man. You're beautiful and could get any guy you wanted..."
Sally rolled her eyes and smiled.
"Yeah, I sure know how to pick em..."
John smiled and shook his head.
"No, no...what I mean is, you don't owe me anything by taking some pity on an old man. I'm glad that bastard is away from you, that's all that matters. Trust me kiddo you wanna go out with somebody your own..."
Before he could finish she stood on her tiptoes and closed her eyes as her lips touched his. His lips were just like his hands, smooth. Instantly she felt his mouth respond to hers, as a smile formed, as he began kissing her back, gently, before slowly developing into a more frenzied hunger. She felt the quick flicker of his tongue, and then he pulled away breathless. She landed back on her feet, and stared at him as both began laughing. John wiped his mouth.
"Well...that's certainly one way to say goodnight..."
Before he could say another word, Sally placed her hands on his broad shoulders.
"I mean it...I really really like you John."
John smiled staring down at her.
"Well with a kiss like that I know you ain't lying."
Now all these years later they were happily married.
Tonight for the first time, she saw him look scared. Raising an eyebrow, she leaned over, pressing her hands against him.
"Honey what is it?!"
"Tim...that kid Tim...fucking Stephen didn't listen to me, and went right in guns blazing...the poor kid didn't check a door for heat and got blasted."
Sally gasped, she had just met Tim a few times this past month. He was a sweet kid, jumping at any chance to learn, and follow the older fire fighters. She knew he was Brian's friend.
John closed his eyes, as a few small tears streamed down his cheeks.
"No, but he has severe third degree burns all over his face...I just came back from the hospital. They don't know if he's gonna be okay...but he's...fucking disfigured...oh Jesus..."
He lowered his head, softly weeping. Sitting there, looking at her husband, her protector, her best friend look so defenseless and scared, her heart broke. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms tightly around him, resting her head on his hitching shoulder.
"Oh baby, I'm so sorry..."
John wrapped his arms around her, holding onto her tight like he always did. Weeping against her for a few minutes, he finally settled down and sniffled.
"Fucking Stephen, you would think after his father he would have the fucking brains to...to..."
He couldn't finish. Instead, Sally held onto him closer, before slowly bringing his head into her lap. Gently she brushed his hair back, soothing him as best as she could, using her other hand to rub his back. After twenty or so minutes John had settled down. Peeling his shirt off, he fell back into bed with her and wrapped his arms around her as tight as he could.
"That kid's life is now ruined..."
"Shhhh, don't think that, just sleep...shhhh..."
After a little while, she didn't hear another word. Instead the steady constant breathing of her husband holding her from behind. Laying there, she wondered how horrible it must have been? She found John's hand, and laced her fingers in-between his. He rarely wore his wedding band at work, fearing he might lose it. Instead it sat on his nightstand. Laying in the darkness, listening to John breathe, she stared across at the ring laying there and wished she could take this pain away from John. He loved his fellow men, they were like his brothers. Laying there, she listened to her husband for a very long time continue breathing in the darkness of their bedroom.