Jon Flores watched the children run and play. Of course, as tweens, Hope and Amy were beyond all that. Instead, they hung out on the sidelines with their tablet, probably watching some video. But Justice and Valor were in the thick of things, laughing and smiling, with Sky and Joy Danvers-Logan, Tommy Turner, and Journey Saunders. All of their friends had come to celebrate this day with them. Even Alison had traveled all the way from Alaska with her new family.
His eyes drifted to the chairs on the other side of the pool. They were back, too. Of course, over the last five years, things between him and J. T. had improved so damned much. You would almost think they were brothers. More so than they ever had been. But then again, his brother was not the same person. How much of that was all the things he had been through? And how much was his partner’s doing? His oldest nephew certainly was not the same.
But it was the shell of the woman reclining in the wheelchair that had been the hardest for him. He would not have done it. But Alicia had insisted. And he would do anything for his wife. Even that. Certainly seeing ‘that’ woman like this was… A part of him screamed that she deserved this for all the hate, animosity, and prejudice that had been her life. He knew, though, that Alicia would be disappointed in him. So, for her sake, he was trying. Doing his best to forgive, even if forgetting was not possible.
His wife… Jon knew that if his tear-ducts worked, he’d be crying. Unashamedly. Five wonderful years. Three more children. He had taken over managing the diner, so she could pursue that other dream. She had completed her training as a counselor and was part of the Danvers Foundation’s Reconciliation network.
And every damned day, when he woke beside her, he thanked whatever was out there that he had been given a second chance – to come back to the woman he loved and the child he did not know he had and to make things right. He would always question the decisions he had made that day and mourn the good men he had lost. He had good friends who understood that – Chris, Chase, Chance, and others in the veterans support network that the foundation sponsored.
She was right. As she usually was. As blessed as they had been, how could he not extend forgiveness to ‘that’ woman? Or what was left of her.
“Are you ready to begin?” Kaitlin tapped him on the shoulder.
He nodded as he bent to kiss the almost blond head of the Flores family’s latest member. After the twins, they had decided that their family was complete. Three sounded like a good number. And with all the other changes in their lives, they feared they could not give another one the time, attention, or care that every child deserves. But Honor was as determined to join the battles for the destiny of this insignificant little planet as her big sister had been.
Or that was the new age mumbo-jumbo way of looking at the failure of Alicia’s pills. He was half-beginning to believe that shit himself. Especially when he looked at this latest little blessing.
He followed Kaitlin to the edge of the property, where it had once been nothing but desert. It was not the artificial green and lush of some lawn, but slowly they were reclaiming the land. It was another of the Regeneration projects supported by the foundation, the Reconciliation network, and a significant part of the children’s learning at the new democratic school which Mandy Saunders had founded.
When he looked at this strip of land, it reminded him of his life. It would never be that artificially perfect lawn, but the costs of creating and maintaining those things were not sustainable. Just as the price of forcing our children into conformity and ‘normality’ never was.
But that did not mean this land was barren. By working with the natural environment, fostering native plants, and using Traditional Ecological Knowledge shared by their First Nations friends, this place was teeming with wildlife. It even provided food sovereignty to their community’s economically oppressed.
Jon felt that same sense of renewal and connectedness as he stepped inside the circle of friends. Alicia and Hope entered from the other side. As they approached the center, even Valor and Justice slipped in to join them. His family. The Flores. A new beginning. Taking the best of the old ways and the new to create something better. A family and a community worth fighting for. Not with guns, but with words and actions. A new way of fighting old injustices.
“We gather here today to celebrate love. Jon and Alicia’s love for one another. A love that fosters and builds family and community. It has been my honor and privilege to know this couple, to work with Alicia for the last five years. I have watched their struggles and witnessed the victory of love in their lives. They have become a shining example of compassion and forgiveness to us all.” Kaitlin looked around the circle of close to a hundred people that they had met over the years. “Alicia, would you like to begin?”
He saw the tears in those dark eyes, but this time he knew. Those were happy tears. Most of them had been over the past few years. Sure, there had been a few sad ones, a couple of angry ones. There always was in this life. In this world that was still struggling with injustice, prejudice, and inequality. But they faced that all together, as a family, just as they were now.
“When you walked into the diner that night, I had no idea where this road would lead. The only thing I knew for certain was the pull I felt to you. To the pain, I saw in those blue eyes. When you walked back into the diner seven years later, those eyes pulled me to you again. I promised you ‘no strings attached.’ But the universe had other ideas.”
Alicia smiled and squeezed Hope’s hand, “And I am grateful every single day to it and you for that.” Being honest and open with an eleven-year-old had proven shockingly easy. Kids were never as dumb as parents and society think they are. He should have remembered that from his own childhood. Their daughter had shrugged, laughed, and said something about karma biting them in the ass. And that was it.
“Today, I officially rescind that offer.” She pulled the rainbow ribbon from her hair and held out her hand.
Jon took it without hesitation, “I told you that night there was no such thing as no strings attached.” He smiled and winked at their eldest, “I just didn’t realize how prophetic that was.”
“But you’re wrong, sweetheart. You and our family are not strings. You’re a lifeline. My lifeline. The thing that tugged me back from death, physical and psychological more times than I could ever count.”
“I knew that night that you were the best thing that ever happened to me. And every day when I wake up beside you, whether it is a good one or bad, I know that as long as you are by my side, everything will be alright.”
He took her hand, and together they passed the ribbon to Kaitlin. “It is my pleasure to honor and consecrate the commitments made by these two people. May the goddess bless you both with many years of happiness, love, and joy. Today and into the next life, whatever that may be.” She intoned as she wrapped the string around their joined hands.
Their children interlocked their arms around them. Jon half-turned to make sure that Honor was not crushed in their family hug. Their circle, their community moved in slowly, embracing all the Flores. As one by one, they came up to congratulate them.
The last was his brother J. T. and his family. Well, most of them. His middle child George still refused to visit after the divorce. But after years of court battles, J. T. had finally been granted unsupervised visits with his daughter Laura.
Jon inhaled deeply, steeling himself for whatever was to come, as he looked down on the woman in the wheelchair. He, of all people, understood what Marianne Buford Walker Tyler must feel, trapped in a body that had betrayed her. But as much as Jon knew it disappointed Alicia, compassion for that woman was still incredibly hard for him. He wasn’t there yet.
But he admired his brother. After everything that woman had put J. T. through, his brother had still stepped up, taking the woman in and providing the intense care she needed after the stroke. Even when he and Clarice would have exiled that woman to a nursing home, J. T. and his partner had intervened. Jon knew the strain they were under, given the situation. And he was slowly coming to terms with the idea that he and Alicia would share that burden. But he wasn’t there yet.
She was thinner, older, and of course, the left side of her mouth dropped. He felt the shooting pain in his chest as if looking in a mirror. Of course, her hair and makeup were immaculate. Her grandson and J. T.’s partner made certain of that. He wondered what the great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler must feel about that.
But they would never know. The stroke had left his mother without speech or even the ability to form many of those thoughts into coherent words using assistive technology. The most she could manage these days was the rare three-word sentence, but it mainly was yes or no.
Jon felt her gentle hand on his shoulder. He knew how much this meant to his wife. They had been talking about this for months. But was he ready? Could he do it? He turned and saw her smile of encouragement. He had sworn once that he would spend the rest of his life becoming the man she deserved. Did he have a choice?
He leaned forward, wrapping his prosthetic arm around the woman who had given him life, if not love. “Mother.” It was as far as he could go. He hoped that it would be enough for his wife. The one person who mattered. The only one whose opinion he truly valued.
Jon saw them. The tears. In eyes that were a reflection of his own. That woman looked from him to Honor, then Alicia. She lifted her good right hand to brush over the sleeping baby’s head. That hand gripped his. He was surprised at the strength remaining in her one working hand, though he knew all about compensating. “Sorry.”
One word. One slurred word. And he was supposed to forgive a fucking lifetime of pain and fuck yeah, mental abuse? He wanted to rage at the injustice. He wanted to scream in anger. He wanted to run away from it all.
But he knew he could not. This moment was it. The culmination of their lives’ work. All that he and Alicia stood for, everything they worked for and believed in. It all came down to this. How could they teach their children or others that the power to change the world began with the person in the mirror if he did not live that himself?
That did not make the words, “You’re forgiven,” one bit easier to say. Hell, they sounded almost as chocked as hers had. But Jon had gotten them out. And in the process, he had freed something inside of himself. Forgiveness was not about that woman. It was not even entirely about him. It was about Honor. About doing the right thing even when it hurt like hell.
That woman nodded her head slightly. Her lopsided smile reflected his own. They could not change the past. But they could create a better future. Jon felt that gentle squeeze on his shoulder and saw the tears running down Alicia’s face as she turned to J. T., “We thought maybe Marianne could stay with us for a couple of weeks; give ya’ll a bit of a break.”
Jon felt the kick to his stomach. Not an emotional one, but an actual physical one as their eight-month-old daughter looked up at him with those same eyes. Though genetics said otherwise, Honor had been born with the same blue eyes that woman, J. T., and he shared. “Okay, I get it. Now, I see why you had to come into our lives.” He kissed her dark hair and caught Alicia’s smile as she discussed the details with his brother.
He had told her that night that life did not work like that. That there was no such thing as no string attached. But he had meant every word, every vow he said today. This had been his lifeline since that night. She had been it as that IED exploded, and his flesh seared away. She was there through all the surgeries and therapies. And now, he knew that she would be there through whatever was to come next.
That together with their friends and family, they could make a difference. This world might never be perfect. But it could be different. She had shown him that. With Hope, Honor, and Valor, it could be more Justice in the future, a better world for everyone.