Jack

‘Never give up the chance for a goodbye kiss. If it’s really goodbye, you might regret it forever.
Jack and I had traveled together for almost 5 years when we got to Richmond. We had been heading that way for a long time. I had started that way a year after I arrived in Houston, he had been traveling that way for two years when I met him. Well, he met me, I should say. I wasn’t exactly in control of who I met, what with my broken leg and all. He fell head-over-heels for me the second he met me and I knew it. The way he worried about me constantly spoke volumes, before and after fixing my leg. He didn’t get the courage to admit it until after a year into our journey. But no amount of time would have made a difference. I already told you about Jake. There was simply no way I could let him go.
We kept on like nothing had changed after he shared his feelings. I never did tell him why I couldn’t love him back. I guess I assumed he’d feel better in the long run if he thought I just wasn’t into him. Something about sharing your lover’s death with your traveling companion just seemed like a real downer.
Anyway, that all started to change around Tennessee.
See, my problem wasn’t that I didn’t like Jack. Or even that I didn’t love him. It was that all that lovey-dovey stuff was a very, very low concern for me. We had to survive. That was concern number one, with a bullet. No one gives a shit about their feelings when they freeze to death. Then again, I never had a firsthand experience of freezing to death, so maybe they do. I’m happier that I didn’t find out.
But when your destination is in sight, everything is put in perspective.
I didn’t really have a destination when I left Houston, not really. I just couldn’t stand to live in one place anymore. The shelter was just too much for me. I needed to roam. I needed to think, and to be alone. And it’s not easy to be alone in a shelter housing most of Texas and Louisiana. But after a year on the road (and a broken fucking leg) I decided that I needed to settle down again. I was too old to be roaming around in temperatures that probably killed everything on Earth.
So, after meeting with Jack, I planned on going to the Richmond shelter and staying there. I had just turned 30 that year, and it was three months to my 35th birthday when I arrived in Richmond. He was younger than me by a good chunk of time; I think he said he was 24 when we first met. It’s been quite a long time since then.
I’m sorry, I have a tendency to ramble. One gets this way in old age.
So in Tennessee, I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing, leaving Jack behind to settle down. I asked him a lot at that point in time what his plans were. He always said he didn’t know. He was just following me. I asked him what would happen if I wasn’t around, and he would never answer. I don’t think he wanted to consider it. Of course, he wasn’t exactly surprised when I told him I was going to be staying in Richmond.
Oh, Lord, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let me start a little earlier.
So we crossed the state line into Virginia and made a beeline for Richmond. The closer we got, the weirder it felt. I was going to walk in to a shelter on an Exodus day. How weird would that be? But what concerned me was Jack: he didn’t question our route. Not even a once. He walked right behind me all the way to Richmond and never asked why we weren’t going to DC. And every step, I wondered if I should have just turned north and headed for DC. Physically, I couldn’t handle any more travel like this, but emotionally, I didn’t want to give up Jack. I know it’s selfish to keep someone around as a crutch, but I really did enjoy his company. Even his stupid, stupid jokes.
So I started to sing for him. I had a weird habit of singing while we traveled; I think it helped me pass the time. I wasn’t particularly good at singing, but I got by. The first time I used the radio to sing, I think I startled Jack. But he didn’t complain. When we finally settled down that night, I could tell he was glowing. Something in the way he carried himself that night just told me. So I sang to him every day for the rest of our trip. It was only a couple of weeks, so it wasn’t too tough. I think he appreciated it. We kept… Well, I kept a lot of our conversations based on the matters at hand: travel and survival. I couldn’t face him then; I’d have felt so guilty that I would have given up on Richmond.
When we finally arrived at the Richmond shelter, Exodus day for that month had been in full swing. The larger shelters would do monthly exoduses instead of annual ones. So we came in, I as a potential tenant, and Jack as my guest. And we got hot showers and hot meals, two things we simply did not have in the frigid wastelands. Funny enough, that was the first time I saw his face, and the first time he saw mine. I don’t know what he expected. He seemed pretty happy with what he saw.
There’s a 24-hour grace period for potential tenants. The doors shut on the shelter 24 hours after the start of Exodus day, and don’t open until the next one. My mind had been made up at this point: I was staying. The first thing I did was that I told Jack.
He was suiting up to leave when I told him. He froze in place when I said I was staying.
He took a deep breath.
“I know. I’ve known for a while now.”
“Yeah, I figured as much.”
We stood in silence at opposite ends of my new room: him near the door, me near the bed.
“Is it because of me?” He asked. He seemed to be covering his bases more than anything else.
“No, stupid, it’s not because of you,” I said, failing to make eye contact. My insult came off more as a defense than an offense.
He nodded solemnly at that.
“I really enjoyed traveling with you,” he said.
I couldn’t even look him in the eye.
“Yeah, same here,” I replied. I think he noticed that I was fighting back tears, but he knew me well enough not to draw attention to that.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he added, reaching into one of his packs. “I needed to leave this with you.”
An old, tattered paperback with “Paradise Lost” written across the cover was what he pulled out. He set it on the dresser near the door.
I don’t even know if my eyes conveyed shock or if I was fully crying.
“Goodbye, Hannah.”
He turned to go out the door, but before he shut it, he seemed to steel himself. Without turning around, he added,
“I love you. To the ends of the earth and back.”
He walked out and shut the door behind himself. I must have cried all night.’
“Well?”
“Well, what?” Hannah asked sternly.
“Did you regret not kissing him or not?”
“Dave!”
“No, Samantha, he’s right. I did start the story with that thought, so I may as well end it that way.”
Hannah leaned back in her rocking chair, and it creaked. Dad custom-made it for her years ago; I never saw her leave that chair, except during the trip to the Alamo. I bet she slept in it.
“But David, I will say, you have not gotten any less bossy since I last saw you,” Hannah said.
Sam looked at her, a little surprised. She hadn’t seen anyone speak to me like that aside from my Father.
She leaned forward again and began,
“Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about that moment for years, and I honestly can’t say there was a right answer. I have spent the past 45 years thinking about that one moment and I can’t think of any way it would have worked out. I didn’t love Jack, not really. It would have hurt him and me if we both stayed there. And I couldn’t bring myself to make him think I loved him only to push him out the door. So I just… Did nothing. There was no way to avoid regret.”
I nodded in understanding. I had yet to experience what she described, but I knew that day would come.
I stood up from my chair and pressed the stop button on the tape recorder. Valuable stories of the pre-melt and pre-Event days needed to be archived.
I leaned down to hug the old woman and thanked her for the story. I turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway.
“Hannah?”
“Yes, David?”
“If you could speak to Jack again, what would you tell him?”
She paused very briefly, only to make sure she heard me correctly. She had an answer ready.
“I’d sing to him one more time, and ask him to tell one of his stupid jokes. But more than anything, I’d want to go on one last journey with him, even though I’m old and frail.”
“Where would you go?”
She didn’t hesitate at all this time.
“To the ends of the earth and back.”
Drew Schackmann is a contributing writer for Gutai-Pravda Assembly. You can contact him on Twitter.
© 2015; David “Drew” Schackmann, Jr.
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