It's his last night as John Connor.
In the morning, he will become David Lawes. Only Mom will know him as John, and she'll call him that as little as she can, always behind closed doors, in hushed tones. Never know who–or what–is listening.
It will be fine. It's better than before, when he could only be John in his own head.
Sitting alone on a darkened beach, he writes his name in the sand and conjures up the ghost of a smile. Way back, when she first started using it, all Mom had to do was say his name and he'd grin so hard it hurt.
That was before he knew what it meant to be John Connor.
He likes to think he's pretty sharp, but it didn't concern him at first, how Mom started treating him like glass. It wasn't exactly out of character. He was getting older, and they were a two-man army fighting a future war in the present day. They both needed to be in top form. So she got a little more frantic when he hurt himself, a little harsher when he fucked up in training. All he really cared about was how good it felt to hear her say "Be careful, John!" or "Dammit, John!"
Yes, John. That is me. I am John.
It wasn't until he took a nasty fall while tossing the pigskin with one of her guys that he got a clue. He hit his head, a little bleeding but nothing major. Not that anyone would have known it by Mom's reaction. She shrieked "John!" and came running, full of piss and vinegar. The confusion lasted way longer than the thrill of hearing his name. Her frenzied breathing, the rapid-fire eye movement test, the drawn-out sigh of relief, it was all a bit much. Of course, he never would have told her that, but the poor, dumb boyfriendo didn't know any better.
"Relax." He chortled. "It's not the end of the world."
"Shut up." She pulled John to his feet and rounded on the guy with all the careful menace of a cobra. "You don't know who he is."
"Sarah, I get it–"
"No, you don't!" She struck him in the chest. "If anything happens to John, it is the end of the world! He's the only hope we've got! So don't you fucking tell me to relax! Get it?!"
Needless to say, they didn't stick around much longer. Things didn't fall apart right away. They never did. Guys usually rode it out for a while to see if she was crazier than she was hot. The answer wound up being yes every time, but the trial period gave them some time to gather their bearings.
John held off on any questions until Mom had a chance to calm down. And then a day or two more, just to make sure. She was changing the bandage on his head–which he didn't even need, mind–and it seemed like as good a time as any.
"Mom," he said. "What did you mean when you said I'm the only hope we've got?"
Her hand paused rolling the gauze, then sped up. "I told you, John, you're the future."
"I know." His eye twitched as the gauze got tighter. "But wassat mean?"
She continued working in silence. He watched her in the mirror, pinning the bandage, brushing the hair back into his face. Their eyes met in the reflection, and she sighed.
"I should have told you before. As soon as I knew your name, I should have told you. Goddammit. It just didn't feel right. But you should know. We can't afford for you not to know." She averted her gaze. "About nine years ago–"
"Mom, I know all about the Terminator."
"No, you don't." Her hands came down heavy on his shoulders. "John, Skynet didn't just send the Terminator because I'm the mother of the resistance. It was because I'm your mother. You're the one who turns it all around. You bring humanity back from the edge of extinction, and lead the resistance to victory. Skynet can't defeat you, so it tried to erase you, by killing me."
His jaw slackened.
"When you were born, I wasn't sure what it meant." She took a knee, and their faces came side by side in the mirror. "But I knew I didn't want you comparing yourself to someone who didn't exist. Might never exist. So I kept John Connor to myself."
"So did I," he whispered.
Mom aged about ten years in one second. "I'm sorry, John."
She never answered.
Being the product of a paradox, 'what-ifs' haunt John even more than they do the average joe. Like, if Mom hadn't been waiting for John Connor, would she have been so quick to accept him? Better yet, if he hadn't been born into a world that needed John Connor, would he be John Connor?
Would he even be a boy?
He curls into himself, staring through the letters in the sand. It's so impossible to imagine, not being a boy. Sometimes he thinks about the early years and, in those memories, he is John. Mom didn't know his name. Shit, for a while there, he didn't know his name. That didn't make what she called him anything more than another alias. The world will soon know him as David Lawes. Inside, he'll still be John Connor. He will always be John Connor.
If he weren't, he might not be at all.
He isn't sure exactly how much Skynet knows about him, and he didn't have a chance to ask Bob. The Terminator.
It hurts less to think of him as 'the Terminator.'
He was always John to the Terminator. Either that was the only name on file, or Skynet chose to use it. Wouldn't that be something? The genocidal computer would wipe his ass out of existence if it could, but it wouldn't dare use the wrong name. If it didn't sound so ridiculous, he'd think it was a sign of respect. No, John had to be all it knew, just like it knew his mother was a Sarah Connor, but not which Sarah Connor.
John supposes he would have told the Terminator eventually, had he stayed. Not that he would have understood. Dude didn't know why humans cried. Safe to say the complexities of identity were not pre-installed on his system. Hell, that's probably why John would have told him. He knows, no matter what he said, the Terminator would have reached the same conclusion. John can almost hear him, oozing certainty and authority through his weird accent.
"John Connor is John Connor."
It's enough to bring tears to his eyes. He'd thought they'd have more time. The Terminator had just started getting the hang of humor. Said he needed a vacation. John would have liked to bring him to the beach. He wonders if the Terminator could have swam, or if he'd sink like a rock. Shit, he hopes not. It would put a hell of a different light on everything if a goddamn lake could have screwed them the whole time.
At least they could have built a bitching sandcastle. He thinks. John has never actually built a sandcastle before, but it doesn't look like rocket science. Besides, he figures the Terminator could have handled the technical stuff. Balance. Structure. How to get the sand out of John's shoes.
They would have made a good team. There was so much he could have taught, so much he could have learned. The man John was supposed to be died with the Terminator. If he'd stuck around, the Terminator could have told John something more than the myth of that man. Then the unknown road might not seem so scary. Instead he's a ten-year-old with an existential crisis.
He is John Connor … but who is John Connor?
Water crashes onto the sand, wiping away his name and soaking through his sneakers. John gets to his feet and cringes at the cold shock that courses through his legs. Each step makes a wet, squishing sound as he approaches the edge of the water. He kneels down. His reflection stares back, familiar but distorted, shaky as his sense of self. So at least it's appropriate.
He pokes his finger in the water and watches himself disappear in the ripples. In practically no time, he comes back together. He does it again, this time more of a jab. The water jumps, like it's surprised, and takes a bit longer to recover. His reflection looks choppier afterwards, but it's probably just a trick of the eye.
There's a part of John that's irrational, but persuasive. (Mom would say it's all of him, like she has any room to talk.) It keeps him prodding and poking like, if he tries hard enough, he can make some lasting change. No dice. The waves cast off his every touch, leaving the water calm and pristine as it ever was.
He still has no idea what the hell "mimetic polyalloy" is supposed to mean, but he knows how it works. Would have worked. The Terminator explained it in excruciating detail. Like, damn. "Anything it samples through physical contact." That meant anything it touched. John would have told him so, but no doubt the Terminator had some long, pedantic reason as to why it didn't. Life was too short, whether he was gonna live to see the end of the world or not.
So he knew the deal. The T-1000 could turn into pretty much anything and anybody. And he believed it. It was hard not to believe. Nothing short of an invasion of the body snatchers could get Janelle to worry and cook and all that mommy shit. But he only saw the skinny cop with the big ears and the grasshopper run, until the steel mill. Talk about double vision. He knew they should have stuck together. Maybe then he wouldn't have almost gotten shivved by a Mom clone with a wicked case of flat foot.
It should haunt him, that split second where he didn't know which mom was actually Mom. He thinks about it sometimes but, in the safety of distance and time, it's almost funny. Hmmm, is she the one with the gun or the one crying 'help me'? The one with the gun, duh. Sure, it's a little fucked up, but he's used to that. It's the working title of his autobiography.
When he's alone in the dark, he sees just the one mom. But it's not his mom. From Mom to the cop, switching forms came as naturally to the T-1000 as breathing does to John. Witnessing it firsthand stirred up the fear he'd been trying so hard to ignore. With it, something else came to the surface. He was a bit preoccupied with not pissing his pants in the moment, so it took a while for him to place it. Took even longer for him to own it.
He never felt envy before Mom got busted. He didn't have the chance. Most places they went weren't exactly child friendly. There were the Salcedas, but no one would mistake them for the Cleavers, either. Then, right the fuck outta nowhere, the fuzz picked him up and tossed him into suburbia. It left him restless, to say the least. He stewed in his boredom and confusion. Before long he recognized the undercurrent of envy beneath it all. He hadn't known how different he was from other kids. Their worlds seemed so … small. Insular. Cozy. Every bad thing that happened was the worst thing that could ever happen, until they forgot about it. Then it was back to fun and games as usual.
Mom raised a good liar. He learned it on her knee, from watching her tell men she loved them. A crooked smile, a well-timed glance, and he could fool just about anyone. What Mom couldn't teach him was denial. It's a doomsayer thing. Denial's not good for the brand. He can convince himself he's too cool for Nintendo, with a little crime and coaxing. It's a much taller order to pretend he hadn't see his greatest wish in the T-1000's transformation.
Okay, scratch that. He doesn't want to be a killer cyborg. That much goes without saying. What he wants is to be comfortable in his skin. That would be a hell of a lot easier if his 'skin' was entirely up to him. No wonder the T-1000 was so damn pleased with himself. Cocky bastard.
Humanizing the enemy shouldn't be so easy. People have been dehumanizing each other for centuries based on the stupidest shit. The T-1000 wasn't even as humanoid as John's Terminator. No "living tissue over a metal endoskeleton," that son of a bitch was a blob. But the blob was a dude. Bust his disguise, break him into pieces, and he came back looking the same. He could be anyone, but he was the guy with the ears. (Oof.)
John knows a thing or two about war. There's no tactical reason the T-1000 should have had a default form. He must have known that. The guy was a prototype, but he couldn't have been that dumb. He'd wanted them to see him, to know who he was, and that he was coming for them. Prideful as fuck but, in a way, John can relate. If he could be anyone, he'd be himself, too.
Not that being himself–or anyone else–helped the T-1000. The Terminator's grenade tore him apart, exposed him in a twisted mess of metal and fake flesh. Then he fell into the molten steel and that was a relief until he started screaming and ho-lee shit. It sounded like nothing of this world, pure agony in auditory form. He screamed and flailed and tried on every face he could, searching for an answer, but there was none. Only death. And John couldn't look away but, God, he wanted to, because the longer he watched, the more he expected to see his own face.
John can't remember where he read it, but he knows stars don't change. They're too far away for the naked eye to detect their movements. He's kept this fun fact in his back pocket for years. When all this future shit gets to be too much, he looks to the stars. No matter what changes in the past or future, they will always be the same. In the smallest of ways, that comforts him.
Mom finds him sprawled out on the beach, staring into space, and gives her best Concerned Mom face. 'Best' being a relative term, of course. It's kind of a cross between are-you-okay? and the-fuck-are-you-doing?
It hits like a sucker punch, his name. His name. Tears well in his eyes, muddying his view of the stars. He tries to blink them away, but one slips out, straight into his ear. Shit. What a dumbass way to get swimmer's ear. He rubs his arm across his eyes, but it's no good. The waterworks have started.
A couple of days ago, Mom might have told him to get on his feet and stop moping. He half-wishes she would. Instead, she lies down next to him in that weird stiff way, like she doesn't know how to relax. (Which she doesn't.) She crosses her ankles and tilts her head so it's just touching his. Between his sniffles, he can make out her voice. She's humming "Rocket Man."
He glances at her. Their eyes meet and a smile, softer than he ever thought she was capable of, crosses her face. She strokes his hair. It feels like a memory.
Even on his best day, John can't sing. But he does. He sings and then Mom starts singing and she can't really sing either but it's okay. It's everything. In his mother's voice, he finds himself.
He is John Connor.
He is a child.
And, now, that's all he has to be.