Well, that went well. The 2004 O'Neill Family Reunion is over, and it was one for the books, in my estimation. And I'm feeling pretty smug right now.
As I turn left to catch the main road back to my folks' house in St. Cloud, I'm mentally ticking off the O'Neill family quirks, oddities, foibles and eccentricities Daniel became acquainted with this afternoon. They were spectacular and they were many.
I don't want to tell Daniel I told him so, but I did tell him so. Hence, my unabashed smugness.
'Course, Mom and Dad were their usual -- or perhaps unusual -- anti-O'Neills. Regular June and Ward Cleavers, Tom and Audrey are. See, years ago when Dad was a teenager, he made a bold move and exited the O'Neill Family Freakshow Freeway, making a right turn on Normal Street and ending up smack dab in the middle of Squaresville. He met Mom when he was in the Navy and has followed a straight - but not narrow - path of conformity ever since. And from these roots sprang the more than slightly twisted twig that is Jack O'Neill.
Dad took a liking to Daniel immediately. I mean, when Dad found out Daniel was Dr. Archae-Anthro Boy, his little National Geographic Magazine Love Meter pinged into the red zone. And, yes, I learned to hoard National Geographic at the foot of my father.
So Dad's pegged Daniel to satisfy his cultural curiosity, and in exchange, my loving father is voluntarily sharing every Jack O'Neill story, every anecdote, every embarrassing factoid of my life in excruciation and Technical detail. And that's only the beginning. Daniel and I are having dinner with the folks tonight and playing golf with them in the morning. Oy.
Dad's mind is a steel trap, by the way. There isn't much that gets past him. I suspect he put two and two together and figured out what Daniel is to me. But...well...with his family, this barely registered on his radar. And like I said: straight, not narrow.
Mom, on the other hand, was acting a bit...off. I've never known her to have a bigoted bone in her body -- my dad's sister and nephew have been in long-term, committed same sex relationships with their partners. Dad's sister, my Aunt Nancy and her partner Aunt Jeanne have been together as long as I can remember. It was never anything Mom judged or fretted about. "Life is too short," she always shrugged. "If they're happy, then I'm happy for them." Quite a progressive stance for a woman of her generation and from small-town, small-minded middle-America.
So I really didn't think I had any reason to worry about either of my parents reacting badly to meeting Daniel. I expected surprise. I mean, I'd dated girls, married one, and had a kid with her. Bringing home a guy I realistically expected some questions. I got it from Dad, but Mom... Her reaction was... not Mom.
Oh, she was nice and polite and made small talk with Daniel at the reunion, and Daniel doesn't know her well enough to suspect anything. As far as he knows, her being...how shall we say...somewhat reserved with newcomers is her SOP, but just like she knows her baby boy, her baby boy knows her. Something's up. I can feel it.
We're following my parents for the hour-long drive back home, and Daniel is sitting quietly in the passenger seat, a mystified, but contemplative expression on that gorgeous mug of his. I can see it isn't just Aunt Pearl's banana-potato salad he's trying to digest.
Daniel sighs and frowns again. It's that same look he gets when he thinks he's figured something out, only to realize he hasn't.
"Daniel?" I venture. I sooooo want to talk.
"Yeah." He soooooo doesn't.
I let the odometer tick off another two miles.
To that, Daniel shoots me a warning glance.
"What? I'm just asking if you're okay!"
"You reek of smugness."
I try unsuccessfully to stifle a smile. My Daniel is coming around and is ready to talk. He won't be able to help himself. My family is an anthropological gold mine of unconventional human behavior and hare-brained ideas. The scientist in him is already trying to fathom the roots of O'Neill weirdness based on only six hours of observation of five generations of O'Neills. Very strange O'Neills. And my parents. Who, I'm sure he thinks, given how well he knows me, should be a LOT stranger.
He'll fry his brain trying. We can't have that. Must take his mind elsewhere.
"I win," I declare simply. I can't help it. It slipped out.
He turns sharply to face me. "No, you do not!"
I don't say anything, but the grin on my face is huge. If I do this all the way to St. Cloud, my cheeks will cramp.
"And stop grinning, you ass! You haven't won anything!"
"Eeee-awwww! Eeeee-awwww!" What do you want from me, I don't do animal impersonations.
Daniel's lips thin but he says nothing and turns to face the road.
Pissy and stubborn. A challenge. "Who was the weirdest O'Neill?"
He smiles sweetly, batting those baby blues at me over his glasses. "Present company excluded?"
An odor drifts around the front seat and both of us grimace. The banana-potato salad is announcing its presence on the floor of the backseat. Daniel gives me a dirty look and closes his nose.
"It's not my fault. She made me do it!" I say, rolling down the window of the rental car. "I defy you to say no to my mother." My mother owes me. "Anyway, back to the matter at hand. We had a deal. Give."
Daniel sighs again, his eyes fixed on the back of my parents' car.
"Well?" I goad.
"I'm thinking, okay? But I'll come up with one."
"Only one?" I snort. He's so busted. I get a steak dinner at the best steakhouse in Minnesota and hot sex when we get to the hotel.
"I must say, I now understand the source of your Wizard of Oz references," Daniel remarks.
"Aunt Gert's ruby slippers," I smile. I have to say the gingham pinafore doesn't help so much with the Dorothy image. It has a Bette-Davis-Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane kinda quality. Her recitation of bad poetry did nothing to dispel that impression. I hope someone's paying attention to her meds schedule.
Daniel looks at me. "Tell me that really wasn't her husband's ashes she was carrying around in a penguin cocktail shaker."
"Can't do that, babe. That's Uncle Dave, all right."
Daniel shudders. "Can't say I've ever been introduced to a cocktail shaker before."
"Okay, so Aunt Gert is the weirdest?"
"Not necessarily," he cautions. "I'm considering my options."
Ah, yes. There are many. "Okay, who's in the running?"
"Well...the Five Elvises. Definitely."
I smile. Marv, Don, Jake, Stuart and Rob. My cousins. All brothers. Each of them Elvis impersonators and not one of them any good at it. The sequined costumes with the capes were nice. Not something *I* would wear to a family reunion, but that's just me.
"Who was the woman carrying around the freeze-dried beagle again?" Daniel asks.
"That would be Glynnis."
"Don't know yet."
"Uncle Earl dropping his pants as he was leaving didn't do it for you?"
"Not really. I was kind of expecting that. Although, the lengths everyone went to to keep him away from the Tupperware was...entertaining."
"How about when he pulled his dentures out and flapped them at Neil's fiancÚ?"
Daniel smothers a grin. Peggy did look funny falling off Neil's lap and onto the concrete pavilion floor in her attempt to get away from the offending prosthetic teeth and Uncle Earl's impromptu ventriloquist act.
"You should have seen Uncle Earl at his wife's visitation."
"He didn't drop his pants there, did he?"
"No, no, no. Nothing like that," I assure. "But someone had mentioned at the time that Aunt Betty's death was sudden and how healthy she had seemed. Uncle Earl reached into the coffin and pulled out Aunt Betty's arm and started waving it around, saying 'Not a lick of arthritis! Not a lick of arthritis!'"
Daniel pinches the bridge of his nose.
I hold up my two fingers. "Scout's honor. It happened. I was there. Needless to say, Aunt Jeanne made me clean up the milk I *had* been drinking."
Daniel chuckles, shaking his head.
"He had her buried wearing her bathing suit and sunglasses. Wanted her to look like she was lying out in the sun, not...er...laid out."
After a moment, Daniel says, "That's...that's actually kind of...nice."
"Well, wanting her to look more like she was relaxing, and not...you know...gone."
I hadn't considered this. I suppose it's possible. I suppose it's-- Daniel sniffs. I look over at him as he stares out his window. Oh crap. Maybe he's thinking about Sha're.
"Why didn't you put your aunt's vile potato concoction in the trunk?"
"I didn't want it to spill over and get smooshed by all the gnomes rolling around back there." I can't believe I got saddled with five more garden gnomes from Aunt Jeanne.
"I suppose the Secret Service will be firing up their x-ray machines to examine five boxes of bubble-wrapped garden gnomes arriving soon at the Vice President's home?" ventures Daniel.
"Four," I correct him. "And not all at once."
"The alpha site needs sprucing up."
"Buuuuut...we digress," I look at him pointedly. "Come on, Daniel. Weirdest O'Neill. Spill. Or I declare myself the victor."
"Jack!" I growl in frustration and let my head fall back on the headrest. Jesus, he's annoying. "They're all weird, Jack. And you're their king."
Jack snorts then makes this ridiculous game show buzzing sound. "Hah! So I win!"
There's that infuriating grin of superiority again. Infuriating, but cute. Sue me. He's charming as hell and I love him more than anything.
"I'm not ready to concede yet, Dubya. Just give me a few more minutes to think about it."
"You've had enough time."
"I've had thirty minutes, and you've been yakking at me for twenty of them."
"I do not yak."
"You so do."
"No, I don't."
I lick my pinky and stick it in Jack's ear. He yelps and hunches his shoulder up to wipe it away. He should have never told me about the 'wet willy'.
"Ewww!" he grouses, still trying to rid himself of the offending spit. "I'm driving here!"
Strange. He doesn't mind when my tongue is in his ear, but my saliva-coated pinky? Wuss.
"If you want an answer, then be quiet and let me think."
"Fine," pouts Jack, as he continues to rub his ear with his shoulder. "But it wasn't just me talking, ya know."
I can't help but smile. If the System Lords were ever to find out what a 'wet willy' does to Jack, they'd not only have GDO codes, they'd have directions to the Pentagon, the U.N., NATO headquarters, Houses of Parliament, the Kremlin, and anything else they wanted.
Anyway, back to our little bet. Jack is convinced he has so many screwballs in his family I wouldn't be able to single out one among them all, that each one is screwier than the next. I have to admit he might have a point.
And he was also right about our relationship being a non-issue with these people. In fact, I can't be sure anyone was even paying attention to us. I mean, when conversations include a serious discussion of modifying car engines to simulate farting so they can propel a car using carbonated water or whether or not Glynnis should put wheels on her dead dog so she can walk it or how Neil O'Neill ended up in the pokey for a string of midnight thefts during which he scored 27 pink plastic flamingos from his neighbors' yards while wearing nothing but his aluminum foil loincloth, I suppose learning a cousin is gay doesn't really generate the impact you'd think it would.
I was prepared to defend us. I was prepared to protect Jack. I was armed with a litany of anthropological evidence and historical accounts of homosexuality among humans throughout the ages, superstition and ignorance rampant with the ritualizing and sanctification of what early civilizations deemed socially acceptable behavior.
Turns out, there was no need. I feel cheated.
I was welcomed with handshakes and huge grins, a few hugs, and in the case of Jack's wheelchair-bound 92-year-old Aunt Willie, a bit of ass-fondling. Peering up at me under a Chicago Cubs baseball cap and lime-green butterfly sunglasses, she grinned, "My fourth husband had a tush like yours, honey. Mmm...mmmm...good."
"Hands off, you musty old bag," Jack had admonished, unable to hide his adoration of the elderly woman. She cackled delightedly as he wheeled her out of fondling distance.
I sneak a peek over at Jack as we continue on our trek to his parents' place. Clearly, Jack gets his irreverence and plain-speaking from Aunt Willie. He has his mother's silver hair and tall, slender build, while his wry grin and mischievous eyes are definitely those of his dad.
It was good to meet Jack's parents. They are very warm and personable people. His mother is a bit reserved, but she did her best to make me feel at home. There was a brief moment when Jack introduced us that I thought I saw something flit across her face. She was fine as the day wore on -- likely, it was nothing, just my own paranoia. Hopefully, dinner will give us the chance to get to know each other in a more quiet setting.
Jack's dad... what a dynamic personality, and he's quite the storyteller. He has quite an impressive repertoire of tales about everyone in the O'Neill clan from the patriarch, Seamus, on down to all those sitting around the tables listening raptly to his every word. Everyone, even the jaded teen O'Neills, were drawn to Tom O'Neill, lounging in his portable hammock and recounting O'Neill family history. Snickers, giggles and raucous laughter were frequent, and every so often, one O'Neill would point an accusatory finger and gasp a "That was you?" at another.
Jack was sitting next to his dad, listening and grinning into his beer. It's obvious he's proud of his father, and Tom is enormously proud of Jack.
I have to grin as I recall the mortified look on Jack's face while Tom detailed for my benefit the biography of Jack O'Neill. It wasn't the face of the confident, single-minded Colonel Jack O'Neill, team leader and reluctant hero. It wasn't the gentle and playful face of Jack, my lover and best friend. This was Jack O'Neill, son, nephew, cousin. He was someone's child -- a source of joy and worry to other people besides me.
The stories went on for a while -- they were mesmerizing. Then it happened: recounting the antics of a line of nervous expectant O'Neill fathers, Charlie's name came up.
It was inevitable. How could it not be? Unfortunately, it triggered an innocent - yet nonetheless upsetting - question posed by six-year-old, Lindsey. "Where is Charlie?" she asked curiously.
There was some shuffling of feet, some bowed heads, and an awkward silence as Jack focused his attention on picking the label off his bottle of Bud. Audrey O'Neill excused herself to the ladies' room with Jack's Aunt Nancy close on her heels. Tom rose up to a seating position in his hammock, cleared his throat one...two times, and reached over to put a warm, steadying hand on his son's arm. He then quietly told the child Charlie had died.
I saw, for a few moments, the dark, despairing face of another Jack - the one I'd first met - a childless father on a suicide mission.
Jack's head stayed down but his eyes flitted up to me from his beer bottle. There was nothing I could say but I just kind of...smiled at him. Not a big one, but I hope it was enough, I hope he got that I knew what it was costing him to have this wound exposed to the scrutiny of his family and that I was with him. All the way.
He returned the smile sadly, then turned to Tom who was looking at Jack worriedly. Jack shared his smile with his dad and patted his hand in silence assurance. A moment later, Tom stood up with a groan. "Better go see about my wife," he sighed.
Tom went in search of his wife while Uncle Earl's denture victim, Peggy, began to share with the subdued group her theories about the afterlife. She blathered on and on with completely unsubstantiated conviction on the subject until she was thankfully silenced by a spoonful of banana-potato salad sailing through the air and landing on her chest.
We all looked in the direction of its source and saw Aunt Willie dipping her spoon into the mixture and positioning the utensil to fire again. Peggy huffed, stood, and stomped away in disgust.
"Reminds me of my sister Winnie," Aunt Willie had grumbled into her plate, putting the weapon down. "What is it about perky tits that turn some women into idiots?"
There had been some snickering from the crowd slowly starting to break apart since it was apparent the storytelling portion of the event was over. During the O'Neill clan diaspora, Aunt Willie had managed to roll herself up to my side.
"I'll give you five bucks to drive me to Vegas," she leered, a twinkle in her eye.
Okay, I have to admit this kind of took me by surprise. I couldn't think of a damned thing to say so I looked over to Jack for some moral support, but he was no help. He just sat there, grinning into his beer. Yeah, she got me but good, but you know what, I can see why she's Jack's favorite relative. According to Jack, for someone who has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, Willie's appreciation for the here and now is unimpeachable.
All in all, it was an enjoyable afternoon, a great experience. In spite of their... unqualified strangeness, the O'Neills are a close-knit, vivacious group. They are supportive, good-natured and don't seem to take themselves too seriously, and I was able to see where Jack came from.
It was a new hue, another nuance to the mosaic of Jack O'Neill, and Jack wanted to share it with me, to give me another part of himself. I'm moved beyond words.
I look over at Jack, who is still driving in silence. A few months ago, when Jack invited me to come here, I balked. For obvious reasons, our relationship can't be known. I wanted to keep Jack free from scrutiny and questions and narrow-mindedness. I didn't know his family from Adam. I didn't trust them. Yet, Jack said he'd been feeling a pull toward his family again and he wanted me there too.
Family is a strange concept to me. I'd come to know it only as a word preceded by 'foster'. Created by a legal obligation, signifying nothing. No connections. No bonds. No guilt. Any sense of 'family' I'd had lay crushed alongside my parents or buried with my wife on Abydos.
Jack knows 'family' to mean something else, something...profound, something innately connected to him, something I've had and lost. Twice. God, why am I setting myself up for this?
"Hey," Jack says gently, glancing over at me. "What's wrong?"
I look over at Jack and give him smile. "Nothing." Then I lean back and roll my head along my shoulders. Not surprisingly, there's a bit of tension in my neck. "Just thinking."
"About...?" Jack reaches over and rubs my neck. "Jeez, you're tense."
I lean into his massage and close my eyes. "Really, Jack. It's nothing. I'm just a little..."
He gives me a moment, then supplies, "...overwhelmed?" as he moves his soothing fingers along my shoulders. "We're kind of a whirlwind, aren't we?"
I chuckle lightly. "Kind of."
We're silent for a while as Jack manipulates the tension from my neck. His ministrations are doing the trick and I'm doing my damnedest to pull myself out this funk about family and grief and loss. And fear of loss. And...
I find my thoughts drifting back to the pavilion. Aunt Willie and I were chatting amiably, and in the course of the brief conversation, she revealed she'd buried four husbands.
"Loved every single one of them," she said. "And every single one of them broke my heart when they passed on."
"I actually have some experience with that. I lost my wife," I replied. "Hurts like hell."
"That is does, my boy." Willie folded her hands in her lap looked as she surveyed the family lined up for food at a table set up for buffet. "Thoreau said, 'There is no remedy for love but to love more.'" She then looked at me. "If I could teach my family one thing, it would be don't be afraid to love. It's what makes life worth livin'."
She lowered her sunglasses, fixed her gaze on me. "Death is a sure thing, boy. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives." She winked, and pushed her sunglasses back on.
As a plate of food was placed before her, she then advised me to never knock on Death's door. "Ring the bell and run away," she said. "Death really hates that!" She cackled and dug into the fruit salad.
Amazing woman. I wish there had been more time to talk, but it seemed she was someone her family quite enjoyed being around. It couldn't just be the red striped sock on one foot and the pumpkin sock on the other.
Jack discontinues his light massaging and returns his hand to the steering wheel.
"Mmmm... Thanks. And by the way...Uncle."
"Call it a prelude for to- What?"
"I said, 'Uncle'. You win."
I sigh. "Yes, Jack. You win."
He doesn't really win. The winner got steak and sex. Jack gets steak and I get sex. It's pretty much win-win in my book. Oh, God, and there's that goofy grin of his.
"Hah!" he beams. "I win."
I have to smile. I win.
"Jack, you could have told me."
And here it is. Mom irritably unpacks the cooler of leftover luncheon meats and salads, jars of olives and pickles being slammed on the counter echo loudly in the kitchen.
"Over the phone, Mom?"
"Well, at least I might have been prepared," she says, casting a glance out the kitchen window. Daniel's helping Dad lift the chairs out of the trunk of their car.
"This is not something you tell your parents over the phone," I reason, pulling the unused paper plates, plastic utensils and stacks of drinking cups from a grocery bag. "And besides, I told you I was bringing someone for you to meet."
"I don't think a casual 'Can I bring a guest?' is adequate preparation under these circumstances."
She turns to stare me down, planting a fist on her hip. "Jack."
"I know this is a shock—"
"Shock is an understatement," she says, returning to furiously tugging condiments and plastic containers from the cooler. "I'm stunned. Floored. Flabbergasted."
"Any chance you might be speechless?"
Okay. That was a bad move. Did I mention living with my mom for eighteen years prepped me for Special Ops training?
"You're almost 50, and now you discover you're homosexual?"
I look at Daniel through the window as he stands with Dad in the garage, looking at something Dad is pointing at. Daniel has a huge grin on his face, and I have to wonder what Dad's telling him now. The sight of the two of them together makes me smile.
"Actually, I discovered I was head-over-heels in love with someone who just happens to be a man." I look at my mother. "So, yeah. I guess that's what happened."
Mom stills, staring into the cooler. "How, Jack?"
I wad up the plastic bag and toss into a nearby trashcan. "How what?"
"Now is not the time to be cute," she says tersely.
"I don't know, Mom," I shrug, getting a little defensive. "How did it happen for you and Dad? How did it happen for me and Sara?" I put a hand on her arm to get her attention. "How about Jeanne and Nancy? Or Patrick and James?"
Mom pulls a face but doesn't say anything.
"I don't know how it happened. It just did. We...clicked. Don't ask me to explain it, I can't. I mean, we're polar opposites on practically everything, and yet..."
My eyes are drawn outside to Daniel again. "I'm alive because of him." Without looking, I know I have my mother's attention. "You'd said something to me a few years ago, about a year after Charlie died and just after my divorce was final. You said I had changed, that I looked good, that I seemed less... burdened." I point out the window at Daniel. "Well, there's your reason for it right there."
Mom looks at Daniel, thoughtfully. "You've been together that long?"
"As friends, yes. But only in the last year did things... well..." I shrug, contemplating what Daniel and I built together. "Daniel... I love him -- I want him with me. I love his companionship, his candor, his humor, his passion. He's brilliant and amazing and kind. He's never dull -- and if you tell him that, I'll deny it. He's smarter than anyone I know. He knows everything about me, and he loves me anyway."
Mom looks from Daniel to me, not saying anything.
"Mom, what's always amazed me about you and Dad is this ability you two have to see past labels and look at the individual. Jeanne and James weren't members of this family, but you and Dad gave them a chance, because you loved Nancy and Patrick. Because you wanted what they wanted." I hold out my hand in Daniel's direction. "Daniel is who *I* want, Mom. *He* is the one I'm going to share the rest of my life with. I love him, and if you give him five minutes, you'd see why and you might love him, too."
Mom turns away, and walks into the family room. I follow her.
I said I know my Mom. She has it in her to love Daniel. I mean, what's not to love? Maybe it's the gay thing. Maybe I overestimated her when it came to her own son's sexuality.
She's sitting down in her wing chair by the fireplace. I cross the room to stand in front of her.
"Okay, you're disappointed to find out that I'm gay—"
"No, Jack. No, that's not it," she says, shaking her head at the floor. "I was just..." She turns her face up to me, and grabs my hand. "I was... I was just hoping you would meet a nice woman, fall in love, marry..." A tear spills over her cheek. "...and be a father again."
I sigh and sink to my knees. They creak and complain as I pull my mother into an embrace.
"I miss him, too. Not a day goes by, Mom," I say softly into her silver pageboy. We stay that way for a little while, then I offer. "If it helps, I *am* in love. And apart from the 'woman' thing - which Daniel wouldn't be too jazzed about - marriage and children are still possible."
Mom leans back in the chair a bit and looks at me, tears streaming down the lines on her face. "But not likely."
I have to shake my head, hoping my smile will soften it. "Not likely. Daniel and I are both very busy and we travel too much. It wouldn't be fair to a kid."
Mom nods, wiping tears from her brown eyes. "Of course, you're right."
"Then again, circumstances change, people change. Daniel would make a great father."
Mom smiles that smile of hers that tells me everything's okay. Then she cups my cheek. "Don't sell yourself short, honey. You were a pretty terrific dad yourself."
I check out my hands clasped in my mother's. I used to think I was a pretty good dad. 'Course my standing as any kind of capable parent took a body blow a while back. I feel my fingers being squeezed. Mom. I smile at her. "I'm okay, Mom." I *am* okay.
"I can see that," Mom points out.
"I know when my son's happy," she says quietly. "And I know who makes you happy. I already love Daniel for that. And besides..." She rises up out the chair. "...anyone who can reduce my son to a sappy bag of schmaltz has to be the real thing."
I grin at her. "All that and wrapped in a pretty package, too."
"He did turn a few heads, didn't he?" My mother smiles indulgently at me and heads back into the kitchen. "I don't think I've seen Aunt Willie so... charmed."
"Charmed?" I grouse, following her. "More like depraved."
Mom grabs a few of the perishables and laughs as she loads them into the fridge. "If she were 50 years younger, she'd be in jail."
"Musty old bag."
"Oh, don't grumble. You're not foolin' anyone, yanno," she says into the refrigerator. "You worship the pavement she rolls on."
"Yeah, well, next time I'm going to ask to see proof she's had all her shots."
"She has," Dad declares, grinning impishly as he and Daniel walk into the kitchen. "Gave 'em to her myself."
Daniel smiles shyly and offers up the plastic bowl of banana-potato salad. "Um...Mrs. O'Neill? Where—"
"Audrey, honey. Call me Audrey," Mom says warmly.
"Oh, um...Audrey. Where would you like me to put Aunt Pearl's salad?"
Mom and Dad look at each other briefly, then back at Daniel and say together, "Compost bin". Mom adds, "Jack?"
"Why me?" I whine.
Mom looks sternly at me, fists on hips. "New family members don't get introduced to the compost bin until after we've at least fed him dinner. Go."
I look over at Daniel, who's biting his lower lip to keep from smiling. Reluctantly, he holds out the bowl for me.
"Come on, Daniel. Lemme give you the five-cent tour," Dad offers. Daniel grins hesitantly at me and follows Dad.
"Honey, please throw the bowl away, too. I can never get rid of that smell -- it's like your old sneakers," Mom says as she puts away the rest of the picnic stuff. "Their distinctive aroma is still permeating the walls in that bedroom."
"You never loved me," I grumble as I head out the back door.
"Nope. Never. You were just a convenient tax deduction. Now, go," she says, shooing me away.
A cool evening breeze blows around Tom and Audrey, Jack and me as we make our way along a hiking trail. I look across the Mississippi River at the setting sun. It's beautiful. I see why Jack wants to eventually retire here.
Audrey made the suggestion we take the short drive up to this park. She wanted me to see it before Jack and I have to leave tomorrow night. It was a good suggestion -- I'm stuffed from dinner and a walk along the river trail will do me a world of good.
What's also welcome is it's Sunday night, the trail isn't that crowded, and Jack has his hand in mine. It feels good there. Really good.
"See those wildflowers over there?" Tom says, pointing toward a spot in the tall grass. "Gotta be a dead body buried over there. That's what makes 'em grow in a patch like that."
"Tom," Audrey admonishes as Jack snorts.
"Well, it's true."
"It is not."
God, this sounds familiar and Jack looks at me and nudges me with his shoulder. I smile at him.
We walk for a few more minutes and run across some reeds sticking out of the river bank.
"Hey, if an escaped convict chases us into the river, we could use those reeds to breathe," suggests Jack.
"Jack," Audrey turns her head to glare at Jack then winks at me.
Another fifty feet and we see an abandoned pair of shoes.
"Look! Severed feet."
Audrey has the gall to look innocent as Tom and Jack stare her down in shock. Audrey's been tainted. Okay, I get it. Dark humor. Knowing Jack, I suppose I should've known he got it from somewhere. I just didn't think it would be these two.
Further down the trail, we find a fishing knife.
"Murder weapon," I announce soberly. Hey, if you can't beat 'em...
Audrey giggles and Tom throws an arm around my shoulders. "Good to know you're a nature lover, too, Daniel. Welcome to the family."
I have to smile as Tom releases me and Jack squeezes my hand. Jack is his father's son. And his mother's, too.
I'm glad I was wrong about what I initially thought Audrey felt about me -- disappointed I wasn't female. The family reunion was fun. Dinner was great. Tom and Audrey were warm and welcoming. I really do feel at home.
We're nearing the parking lot where the car is parked, and Tom excuses himself to go to the park's men's room.
"S'probably not a bad idea," Jack says and takes off after his dad, while Audrey and I wait by the car.
It's true I barely know her, but even so, she looks like a woman who has something on her mind.
"Thank you, Daniel."
I'm right. Confused, but right.
"Uh...for what, Audrey?"
She's looking at the asphalt. "Bringing my son back to me."
I'm still confused. "I didn't do anything. It was Jack's idea to come. He wanted to be with his family again. I have to admit he had to convince me to come along." Ooh, that sounded bad.
"Er, I mean... Please, don't misunderstand me. It's not that I didn't want to meet you. I did. It's just that--"
"You have to be discreet, I know, sweetie. What I meant was..." Audrey reaches over to take my hand, then sighs. "I thought Charlie's death was the worst thing that could happen to us. It wasn't. The worst thing was watching Jack slowly dying in *here*." She puts her other hand over her heart. "Tom and I worried about him. We were afraid we were going to lose him, too. But then a few weeks later, he came up to see us. He seemed better, even though Sara had asked for a divorce. And although he was still sad, still not quite the Jack we knew, he was better.
"This afternoon, I saw my son again. The happy one. The one with the easy smile and that...love for life he used to have. Then when Charlie's name came up today, I had to leave because I didn't want to see that devastated look in my son's face again. But I stayed close by and I watched. And I saw him look at you. And you look at him. And I knew who brought my son back. Thank you, Daniel."
She reaches up and kisses me, then hugs me tightly. I'm glad it's dark, I know I'm blushing. And my eyes are stinging and I swallow hard. I don't know what to say, I just let myself be held. I have to tell her that Jack's the one who saved *me*.
"Mom, do I have to worry that you're spending too much time with Willie?" Jack says as he and Tom make their way across the parking lot.
Audrey releases me with another kiss and a hand on my cheek. She then steps back, wiping her eyes. "Yes, Jack dear. Be afraid."
We smile at each other, and Jack looks at me curiously. I shake my head to let him know we're all right, but I think this will stay between Audrey and me.
Minutes later, we're back on the road for the twenty minute drive back to Jack's parents' house. Jack and I are in the back seat and he has his hand on my thigh. He's clearly in the mood to collect on our bet. So am I.
I was so full at dinner, I had to ask that the dessert I'd prematurely ordered be boxed up to take with us. Now the cheesecake sits on the floor waiting for me to put it to good use later. And I will. When Jack and I settle our bet.
It's a good thing the back seat isn't that big. I get to lean into Jack and think about the day, think about Jack's family. I hope I can come back and spend more time with them.
Whoa... So this is it. This is what pulled Jack back here. I have to digest this for a minute. This is what draws me to Teal'c to share Kel'no'reem when I'm stressed out. This is why I grab Sam to go for some coffee when I need a break from work or to run an idea past her. This is what I have with Janet and Cassie and even General Hammond. Now add in Jack's parents and Aunt Willie, even Uncle Earl. This is family, and mine suddenly grew bigger today.
I shiver at the revelation. It's a good feeling.
"You okay?" Jack murmurs, putting his arm around me.
I look at him and smile. There is no remedy for love but to love more, Aunt Willie said, quoting Thoreau. Gazing into those eyes even in the darkness of the car, I don't think I can possibly love more than I do right now.
"Yeah," I say quietly. "Thanks for asking me here, Jack. Thanks for your family."
"Weirdness and all?"
"Weirdness and all," I affirm.
"It has to be said again: 'I win'." Jack smugly tucks me further into his shoulder.
"You win, Jack."
And so do I.
|Genres:||Angst, Drama, Established Relationship, Humor, Romance, Smarm|
|Series:||La Familia O'Neill|
|Summary:||Jack has convinced Daniel to meet the folks.
Author's Chapter Notes:
None really, although it has been dubbed sweet. But put your insulin injections away, kids. I don't do sickly sweet. ;-)