I first met John in a cafe when I was sixteen. He barged in, laughing at the tail end of a joke with a man and woman. I glared at them over the pages of my book, inspiring a grin and wink from John. He invited himself to my table, as did the couple with him, and though I rose to leave, I found myself wrapped up in his stories hours later, laughing alongside Margery and Winston. I left the cafe long after the sun had fled the sky and night activities buzzed in the city streets, feeling as if I still walked in some kind of dream. I was grounded for a week by my worried parents when I got home. No, it truly hadn’t occurred to me to check in.
When I met John again, I was out of college and working at a grocery store while waiting for my college educated resume to interest somebody; anybody. I heard him from the other side of the store and abandoned shelves I was stocking to see if my suspicion was right. Standing among stacks of apples, telling a tale of adventure to three giggling leggy blonde women, he looked as if he’d stepped from the doorstep of that cafe straight into the produce aisle. I was in retreat when he called out to me.
“Skulking away so soon, Sarah?” he said at a volume that no doubt had alerted even my manager in the back office to my whereabouts.
“John, right?” I said, approaching. “It’s been a while. I’m surprised you remembered me.”
I, on the other hand, had never forgotten John. Being grounded had certainly helped seal the encounter in my memory, but even without that I probably would have remembered him. He wasn’t easily forgotten. John took my hand in both of his and flashed his practiced grin at me.
“Why Sarah, I came here looking for you.”
I met up with him at a nearby tavern after my shift. Where the leggy blondes had gone, he didn’t say. We talked for hours over more pitchers than I could count, and by closing time, I was in love. And spinning. And sick. John supported my weight on the walk to my apartment. The next morning, there was no sign of him. My head was screaming and my stomach was twisted into a hard knot, but the worst of the pain was remembering how I’d confessed my eternal love moments before losing the contents of my stomach and bursting into tears. Cringing at how he’d patted my back reassuringly as I sobbed over the toilet rim about how he didn’t understand how we were meant to be together. In the bright, unforgiving morning light, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and cease to exist.
I finally managed to get hired in a professional setting proofreading legal documents, and several years later, in a different state and now working as a paralegal, found myself again face to face with John. It had been one of those days where everything is difficult. My blouse had a stain from lunch, which my suit jacket thankfully covered, but the courtroom had been oppressively warm and I smelled ripe. I stopped at the door, swearing as my phone lit up with yet another call from my ex-boyfriend, Blaine.
“It’s over!” I shouted into my phone. “Stop calling me!” That was when I noticed the run in my stocking, and looking up, my very own Gone John leaning against a column with a wide grin. He hadn’t changed a bit, and my throat filled with acid as the memories rushed back. I heard a small tinsel voice and realized Blaine was still talking. “Gotta go,” I said absently into the receiver before hanging up. I could feel all of the blood from my body rushing into my cheeks. John was chuckling and I wished I could disappear.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I came to see you,” he said, offering his arm. I looped mine through his and we walked together through the evening foot traffic as if on a leisurely stroll. “I don’t envy your fellow,” he said.
“I don’t drink anymore,” I said, instantly feeling foolish at how defensive that sounded. “How did you know where to find me?” I thought to ask.
John chuckled again. “It’s a talent I have,” he said.
“Listen,” I said, stopping our progress, “about the last time I saw you…”
John smiled and patted my hand as if to say it’s all water under the bridge, and I found myself dazzled all over again by that smile. Whatever I’d been about to say, it didn’t matter anymore. I took him to my apartment where I changed into the most flattering jeans I could find. While selecting a good top, I heard raised voices in the living room. Blaine and John, shouting. Blaine’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head when he saw me round the corning wearing a bra and my curvy jeans. He pointed an accusing finger at John.
“Is this the real reason why you kicked me out?” he yelled.
“I imagine she kicked you out because you’re an a…”
“I can fight my own battles, John,” I said, painfully aware of Blaine’s hot temper and the mean, vindictive streak that had been the real reason for my ending our relationship. “Blaine, what are you doing here?” I asked, noticing the roses in his fist.
Blaine threw them at my feet and pointed at John’s smug grin for a long tense moment before storming out. My nerves were buzzing. I wanted to shout at John, but Blaine wasn’t his problem. Only after noticing John’s amused gaze did I remember that I still wasn’t wearing a shirt. I turned without a word and grabbed the first one my hand fell on in the closet. When I returned to the living room, John was gone.
Blaine proved challenging in the months to follow, and eventually I took legal measures to restrain him as I learned more about the lines he was willing to cross. It didn’t actually keep him away from me, but he did get more careful, until I found him standing on the lawn in front of my apartment, staring up at my window. I was already dialing the police when I went to the front door.
“I came to say I’m sorry,” he called across the lawn, and I took a step back inside, truly frightened now. “I won’t bother you again,” he called through the glass. “Tell John I’m doing what he said. I really thought there was something between us. I was wrong. Sorry.” He turned, and walked away.
I saw Blaine again a few times through the legal proceedings that followed his arrest and the charges I pressed against him, and each of those times he refused to make eye contact or speak to me directly. When my attorney asked who this John guy was, I shrugged and said he was an old friend. Her question chewed through me though. Truly, who was my Gone John? Through the years that followed I tried to answer that question, but had little to go on.
When John appeared again, I was on a blind date. It was the laughter that caught my attention, and I knew without looking that it was John. I tried to ignore it and pay attention to what Jackson was saying, but I ended up concentrating so hard on paying attention that I failed to do just that. Jackson, picking up on my feigned interest, made the dinner respectfully brief. I tried not to look as we left, but my traitorous eyes betrayed me. Glancing over, I saw John at a large table, surrounded by seven or eight laughing people. John’s arms were stretched over the backs of the chairs closest to him in a manner that made him seem to own the place. He was grinning at me, and gave me a wink.
I wasn’t surprised when he turned up on my doorstep later that night. I let him in and took a seat on the sofa without a word. A teapot and two mugs sat at the ready. John took them in with amusement and settled himself down beside the second mug, helping himself to the tea and refilling my cup.
“You have questions for me,” he guessed.
“I want a last name,” I said.
“Can’t give you one,” he said. “But that isn’t your most burning question.”
“Everyone has a last name,” I scoffed, but I moved on. “Who are you? What are you? Why do you keep turning up in my life and why don’t you age?”
John grinned and savored his tea. “I’m a game creator,” he said, “and I keep turning up in your life because I decided to make you the key to a treasure hunt.”
I waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “That doesn’t make any sense,” I said at last.
“Are you up for an adventure?” he asked.
My laughter was humorless. “Sure,” I said, “why not? I’d get my coat, but you’d be gone by the time I came out.”
John grinned. “Try me,” he said.
“Alright, Gone John,” I sighed, getting up. “See you in a few years.”
I could still hear John laughing as I grabbed my jacket, and to my astonishment, he stood next to the door when I returned, his grin in place. “I like that,” he said. “Gone John.”
By adventure, John meant driving five hours to a town in the middle of nowhere, where he insisted I stay out of sight in the car while he checked into a motel room. There were two beds, and we each took one for a nap that felt all too brief. When John woke me I was disoriented. The world felt thickly colored and unreal, as if the dream had merely told me I was awake while keeping me in its clutches. John studied me carefully.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Groggy,” I sighed, rubbing my eyes.
“I’ll take groggy,” he said, handing me fresh clothes. “Our adventure begins today.”
“What are we doing?” I asked. I’d seen the town as I drove in the night before. It had taken all of three minutes to drive the length of it.
“We’re going to break you out of jail,” he said, flashing his signature grin.
I blinked at him, uncomprehending.
“Get dressed,” he encouraged, “it’ll be fun. You’ll see.”
“You know I work in the court system, right?” I asked. “I’m one of the people helping to uphold the laws of this country. I’m praying that you meant that as a joke.”
John merely laughed and tossed my coat onto the bed. “We’re not in your world right now, Sarah,” he said. “You’ll see when we get there. This is going to be fun.”
He was waiting in my car when I came down twenty minutes later, and directed me through the two turns it took to get to the police station. We parked across the street.
“John, this isn’t funny,” I said. “I’m not going to help you break the law.”
“I’ll let you decide,” he said, opening the door. “We have a little time. I’m going to take a walk. When I get back, tell me what you decide.”
I watched him stroll around the back of the police station like a man with no care in the world. I got out and paced. He’d said we were going to break me out of jail. That implied that he intended to get me arrested. There wasn’t one thing I liked about this. I looked at the key in my hand. I could be the Gone John this time. Get in the car and drive away. I gazed across the street into the police station, and froze. There was a woman being interviewed by a man in a suit. The way she held herself, she seemed nervous or frightened. Cornered. I peered with more interest. Her hair… her mannerisms… John’s words this morning came back about not being in my world. What was he? The woman being interviewed looked like… she was…
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up one of W. C. McClure ‘ s books. Thanks!