71: Johnny Came Home

71: Johnny Came Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Johnny Came Home

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.

~Douglas Adams

My friend Amy appeared worn out and unkempt. Then I saw her shaking hands and her red, grim face. I did not invite her to come in.

I’d recently taken in her sixteen-year-old because he felt he was no longer welcome in her home.

Amy’s voice quivered with rage. “Why did you let Johnny move in?”

“He’s welcome in my home.”

“You had no business taking him in.”

“He had no place to go.”

She made a move as though to blast past me into my home. I stood my ground. Her eyes narrowed to slits. I could practically smell her anger. “I want him to leave.”

“He’s staying here, Amy. He has no place to go.”

My son Brian and her son Johnny had been friends since they were five years old. Their birthdays are one week apart, and both have genius-level IQs and identical interests. They were so close they were like brothers.

Johnny had not done well after Amy married Mark and had more children with her new husband. He didn’t feel like he fit in their household, and he turned into a resentful and angry young man. Although I couldn’t defend his outburst of rage that led to him taking a baseball bat to the windshield of Amy’s car, neither could I let him go homeless.

Anyway, it wasn’t that she’d come to take him home. She just didn’t want him to be in mine.

“Go home, Amy.”

She made another attempt to come in. I blocked her with my shoulder and glared at her. “Go home,” I repeated. “You aren’t coming in.”

It was a tense moment between old friends.

Johnny stayed, but he didn’t behave well. I’d bought the boys bunk beds, and Johnny, in the top bunk, pounded the ceiling with his feet after we were all asleep. He roamed the neighborhood at night, sometimes talking Brian into going with him. He taunted my daughter Moriah to tears. He needed more structure and discipline than I could manage. Together, we found a non-military group home with rules he felt he could live with. It didn’t last long and, after that, he vanished. What could I do? He wasn’t mine, and apparently, he decided to make it on his own.

Four years passed. Brian mourned for Johnny sometimes, wondering if Johnny was dead or alive, free or imprisoned. Johnny was braided into so many of Brian’s childhood memories that Brian couldn’t reminisce without thinking about his friend. Brian graduated and moved out on his own. I got promoted to a position as a database administrator with the privilege to work remotely from home. All it took was an extra phone line and I could stay in my pajamas all day if I wanted.

The only downside to working from home was the telemarketing calls. Solicitations. Requests for donations or to join a cause. As soon as I heard their chirpy greetings, saying my name like we were old friends, I told them, “No,” and asked that they take my name off their calling lists. Until one special call.

“Leslie, you’ve been chosen for a free Florida vacation. Three days, two nights, all expenses paid. All you have to do is answer three questions.”

I caught my breath, and my eyes widened. I stopped listening to the words and heard only the voice. I whispered, “Johnny?”

“Pardon me?”

“Johnny? Is your name Johnny?” I felt silly. What were the odds? Astronomical, to the point of miraculous.

His spiel interrupted, he stopped talking.

My eyes tearing up, I asked a third time.

His response? “Who is this?”

“It’s Leslie.”

As the wonder infused both our hearts, we vocally high-fived and gushed for a moment. What were the odds of his computer autodialing my number? Or, instead of Johnny, it could have been a co-worker who called me. I told him that most times I let the unknown calls go to voicemail. I asked him, “Where are you?”

“In Chicago. I met an older woman online and moved in with her.”

As my mind registered the words “older woman” and “online,” my instincts tingled. “How much older?”

“Fourteen years.” He paused. I heard his mouth crackle a little and knew he’d plastered on that big smile he used when telling me something sure to get a reaction. “I’m a stepdad.”

Ambivalence flooded me. I was happy that he was safe, but what was an extremely intelligent nineteen-year-old doing working as a phone solicitor five states away from home, raising someone else’s children? Don’t go there, I decided. Keep the conversation focused on him. “We miss you.”

His tone shifted down like a car struggling to get uphill. “No one calls me ‘Johnny’ anymore. It’s John.”

I filed that away.

He said, “I’m on a timer so I have to go. I’ve got your phone number.”

His tone puzzled me. We experienced a miracle together. A true, honest-to-God miracle. Didn’t he miss us? God opened the door, and I sensed that unless I said the right thing, and quickly, Johnny was about to close it. Then insight struck. He’d put years and miles between himself and his family of birth. Well, Johnny might have put his past behind him, but I wasn’t about to let us stay there. I went for the big gun. “Brian misses you.”

He said without hesitation, “I miss him, too.”

I wanted to ask him for his phone number, but instinct told me not to. “Call me back. Promise?”

I heard him swallow hard. “I promise.”

It took him a while, and we waited anxiously, but his call finally came. His first visit was a momentous event. He wavered for a couple years about permanently returning to Florida, but eventually he left the older woman and came home. He fell in love with a woman, this time one eleven years younger than himself. He prefers employment that involves physical labor with a self-understanding that jobs that make him “think” also engage emotions he believes he cannot always control.

He calls me “Mom.” Out of respect for my old girlfriend, I insist on “Second Mom.” I still call him Johnny; out of respect for me, he doesn’t insist on “John.” In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call each other. What matters is that, thanks to divine intervention, what was lost has been found, and the son of my heart is home.

~Leslie Dunn

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