Inspired by the song, “Prodigal Father” by John Flynn.
Thanks to Crkcppr for his early read and Todd172 for beta reading.
Thanks always to my Sweet Inspiration blackrandl1958 for her encouragement, advice, and of course, her editing.
John and Gail were both from broken families, with all the heartache and hardship that implies. Even before the divorces, they were forced to endure the accusations and recriminations their parents threw at each other. It was a rare night to go to bed and not be woken up by yelling or the sound of smashed crockery.
They found solace in each other’s arms, and dreaded when the time came to return to the war zones that were their homes.
“Promise me, John,” Gail pleaded, “that our home will never be like that, that whatever happens you will always love me.”
“Of course, Honey,” John replied.
It all came to a head shortly after their high school graduation. John had recently turned eighteen, which was the signal for his parents to divorce. Considering the acrimony of the last few years the divorce was relatively amicable, but still stressful for all concerned.
For all the pain of John’s parents’ divorce, it was a pleasure cruise compared to Gail’s situation.
Her father broke his wife’s jaw, putting her in the hospital, him in jail and leaving Gail to fend for herself.
Gail was a mess. They had both planned on going to community college, but that was now out for Gail, and she would soon be losing her home. She had to find a job.
“What are we going to do, John?” she cried into his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Gail, we’ll figure it out,” he said with more confidence than he felt.
The bad news kept coming.
Even with the alimony and her job, John needed to get a job to help his mother out, putting his dreams of further schooling on hold.
John and Gail were well aware of the failure rate of couples who married young. They only had to look at the wreckage of their own parents’ marriages to confirm the statistics.
They knew that they were different, however, that their love was one for the ages. They were special; they were in love and true love conquers all.
Without fears for the future, they decided to marry their fortunes together and had a small ceremony at City Hall.
At first, they floated on a sea of love, in blissful ignorance, but reality soon came crashing in on them.
Love cannot be eaten; love can’t pay the utilities or put gas in the car.
They both were industrious and worked hard, but good jobs were scarce for young inexperienced workers. They persevered and soon established a stable, semi-comfortable home.
Unfortunately, the kind of jobs they got weren’t they type that careers are built on, and John had to change jobs often, preventing him from building up the kind of seniority on which job security is built. Nevertheless, John was a hard worker who gave his all to whatever job he had.
Then came the news; Gail was pregnant! John was going to be a father! Despite their concern about the loss of Gail’s income, their joy at their impending parenthood completely overrode it.
They both worked as much as they could, setting aside money for when Gail had to stop working.
Almost to the day of their son, Mark’s, birth, John lost his job, but was fortunate enough to land another right away.
Mark was only eighteen months old when John was called into his supervisor’s office.
“John, there’s really no easy way to say this,” Bill Riley said, “but things have slowed down quite a bit and as the newest hire, I’m afraid we have to let you go.”
John was in a state of shock. Not at the firing; that was old hat to him now. The difference was that he had a child now. How was he going to tell Gail that he had lost his job?
He wasn’t quite ready to face Gail with the news, and stopped at Kelly’s Bar & Grill for a cold brew. He knew that couldn’t be a long-term solution, so he drained his glass and went home to Gail and Mark.
Gail knew something was wrong when she saw John trudging up the walk, hours early with his head hanging down.
“John, what’s wrong?” she asked sitting beside him as he sat wearily on the couch.
“I got laid off ... again,” he said.
“Oh, John!” she cried, “What are we going to do now?”
“Do? I’m going to do what a husband and father is supposed to do. Get a job and support my family.”
“Of course, John, I didn’t mean to doubt you.”
“I know, Gail, I know. It’s just that it’s so frustrating. Sometimes I regret not waiting to get married. Maybe I should have gone to Community College first.”
“Don’t you go blaming yourself, John! I think I had something to do with that decision,” she said, rubbing seductively up against him. In a few moments they forgot all about their troubles, at least for one evening.
Unfortunately, one night of hot sex couldn’t solve all their problems, and the next morning, John filed for Unemployment, swallowed his pride and applied for food stamps.
He spent the rest of the day pounding the pavement looking for a job without success. John returned home frustrated and exhausted.
After a week, John was getting depressed. He had occasionally gone more than a day or two without work, but that was before he had a baby to worry about.
Unemployment and food stamps barely covered the necessities, jobs were scarce, and John was getting not just frustrated, but angry, and to his shame, he occasionally took his anger out on Gail.
Gail tried to be sympathetic, and usually succeeded, though she sometimes lashed out in return.
John continued to apply for work everywhere he could, but continued to come up empty. When Gail got a part-time job as a waitress, John’s pride was crushed—he was raised to believe that it was a husband and father’s responsibility to provide for his family.
He swallowed his pride, and tried to find satisfaction in quality time with his son, which did help some.
He was getting more and more frustrated, wearing out shoes pounding the pavement, trying to find something, ANYTHING to make a buck, but unable to find anything more than the occasional day-laborer job.
John was in the neighborhood bar, enjoying a rare cold beer before going home to report on another unsuccessful day of job hunting, when one of his less reputable high school friends approached him.
“Hey, John,” Hal Olson said, “How are things?”
“Could be better,” John snorted.
“Yeah, I kinda heard,” Hal said, “That’s why I was looking for you. I have a proposition.”
Hal had quite a reputation, going all the way back to high school, for walking a fine line between legit and not quite so legit enterprises, and John was understandably suspicious.
“Just what kind of a ‘proposition’ are we talking about here?”
“Now, don’t get your panties in a bunch, John, we’re not robbing a bank or nothin’.”
“Then just what ARE you talking about, Hal? Knowing you it can’t be anything good.”
“You cut me, Bro!”
“Yeah, yeah, Hal, just cut to the chase, will you, please?”
“Okay, John, I’ve got a line on shipment of electronics that should be an easy grab, all I need you for is to be a lookout, and I’ll cut you in for 15%.”
“You know what they say, Hal, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
“Come on, John, it’ll be a piece of cake.”
“Just when is this ‘piece of cake’ arriving?”
“In two weeks, but I need an answer in ten days.”
“Okay, give me your number. I’ll let you know in ten days.”
John punched in Hal’s number, wearily pushed himself away from the bar and headed home.
John knew that it was a bad idea, but he was desperate, and despite his misgivings was giving Hal’s proposition serious consideration.
When he got home, Gail could tell that John was troubled, but nothing she would say could pull it out of him.
For his part, John was in turmoil. He always considered himself an honest man, a good man, and now he found himself seriously considering committing a criminal act. It went against everything he believed in, everything he thought he was, but he was desperate.
Gail continued to sense John’s stress, but wild horses couldn’t drag it out of him.
When the ten days were up, he called Hal to say that he was in, and four nights later he found himself behind a warehouse, dressed all in black. While he waited he gave a passing thought about how he would explain the money to Gail, but before he could give it much thought, all Hell broke loose.
The truck pulled in, and Hal and his partner Alex yanked the driver out of the truck and knocked him out.
Before they could move out they were surrounded by police cars; it was a trap, and they were all hauled in, including John.
At first John didn’t want to call Gail, but he didn’t want her to worry, so he called her, and she came right down to the station after dropping Mark off with her mother.
“Don’t worry, John,” she said, “This has to be a mistake. We’ll get you out of this!”
“No, Gail, I’m sorry, but it’s true. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I was just so desperate...”
“It’s alright, John, I won’t say I’m not upset with you, but I understand.”
Even as Gail said the words, she wasn’t sure that she believed them herself. What the fuck was John thinking? WAS he thinking? They had a child, for God’s sake! Sure, times were tough, but they sure as shit weren’t going to get any better with John in jail!
With help from Gail’s mother they got John bailed out, but the ride home was tense. Gail wanted to tear into John, but could tell that she couldn’t make him feel any worse than he already did, so left him to torture himself with his own thoughts.
They could not afford an attorney, so John was appointed a Public Defender, but it didn’t really matter, John was disgusted with himself and felt he was a total failure in everything. His Public Defender was pretty good, though, and got him a plea deal that would send him to prison for three-to-five years.
Gail stood by John through everything, even though it hurt her to see the defeat in his eyes. Even during their toughest times, John had been her rock; but the man she saw in court as the sentence came down was just an empty shell.
Before he was taken away they were allowed a few moments.
Holding Mark in her arms, weeping, Gail said, “I’ll wait for you, John.”
“No, please don’t,” he said, “I’ve made a mess of my life. You need to start fresh, find a good man, a better man, to raise our son.”
She kept shaking her head no as she cried in his arms until they took him away.
Mark was confused and upset that his father wasn’t there, but he was very young and soon adjusted.
Life in prison was both better and worse than he imagined. There was no cell mate named Bubba, and he didn’t have to worry about dropping his soap in the shower.
However, the boredom and monotony were soul-crushing, and the food simply sucked.
The only saving graces were Gail’s monthly visits, and the opportunity to further his education while behind bars.
Gail felt that she had to go, even though it nearly killed her every time to see this once proud man reduced to ... what? She just couldn’t find the words to describe the man that she once loved with all her heart.
It was John who urged her to get a divorce, to start a new life, and Gail resisted, but she finally gave in to the inevitable and he received the divorce papers. He shed a few tears as he signed them and sent them back.
Even though they were divorced, Gail still felt a connection with John that wouldn’t let her get close to another man. That is, until David came into her life.
David was a semi-regular customer at the diner where she worked, and when she stopped wearing her rings he became much more regular. At first, they engaged in the simple flirting that many waitresses do, especially with regulars, but eventually, David asked her out on a date.
After some initial reluctance, Gail went out on some dates, and on her next visit, John could tell that something had changed, but he was afraid to ask, and Gail was afraid to tell.
Gail’s relationship with David grew, and her visits continued for a few more months, until the day that John knew would come someday.
“John,” she said, “I ... I’ve met someone, and it looks like it’s serious. I ... I’m sorry, John.”
“It’s okay, Gail,” he said, though neither of them really believed it, “but I don’t think you should come to visit anymore, it’s just too hard for me.”
Gail nodded her understanding, and touched his hand gently.
“I’ll never forget you, John, and I’ll pray for you.”
It was thoughtful of her to say, but John knew that he would soon be a distant memory, hopefully, mostly a pleasant one. She had a new man to love, and who loved her, and he and Mark deserved all of her devotion.
Gail and David did eventually marry, and while she agonized about it, Gail did write John to tell him. She felt that he deserved to know.
John shed a few tears, of course, but knew that it was all for the best.
Over the next couple of years, Gail, David and Mark became a true family. Gail never asked John to give up his parental rights, so David never adopted Mark, but he still treated him as his own and did his best to raise him up right.
John tried his best to get along in prison, managing to avoid the gangs and mostly kept to himself as much as he could. Many nights he quietly cried himself to sleep holding the one picture of Gail and Mark he kept with him.
With good behavior, John served the minimum sentence, and walked out of prison a “free” man. As the gates closed behind him, he took one more look at his well-worn picture of his former family, and walked off into an uncertain future.
At the same time Gail was looking at the picture of John that she kept hidden in her dresser. Unbeknown to her, David was well aware of the picture. He had noticed that twice a year she went off by herself into their bedroom. He asked her about it once, but she just said that she was straightening up. He bought it at first, but noticed it was only those two days.
The next time it happened, he decided to see what she was doing. It pained him to spy on her, to show her distrust, but he HAD to know! He approached their bedroom quietly. Fortunately, the door wasn’t closed tight, and he was able to push it open a crack. What he saw shocked him; Gail was crying over a picture. He watched until she put it in a dresser drawer, then quickly returned to the living room. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see that Gail’s eyes were red and moist.
“Is everything alright, Honey?” he asked.
“Wh ... What, what? Oh ... Oh, yeah, I was just straightening up the closet and it was a little dusty,” she said, wiping at her eyes.
David let it drop, but the next time she was shopping he opened the drawer to look for the picture; it was a picture of John! He then went through her papers trying to figure out the significance of those dates. It didn’t take long; one date was John’s birthday, the other was John and Gail’s wedding anniversary.
At first, David was angry. After all that John had done to destroy their family, she was still hung up him? Did she still love John? Was she REALLY in love with him, or was he just a meal ticket?
He suppressed his anger when he heard her car pull into the driveway, but was still seething inside.
The door slammed open as Mark came running into the house.
“Daddy, Daddy,” he cried, running over to David with his arms wide open. David lifted him up and swung him around before pulling him in for a big hug. David’s anger dissipated as his love for this little boy over-flowed. Mark might not be his flesh and blood, but he couldn’t imagine a closer father-son bond.
He put Mark down and went to help Gail with the groceries. After they were all put away they each grabbed a drink and sat down on the couch.
Gail sensed a distance between them, but as David put an arm around her and pulled her close she dismissed it as her imagination.
As time went by, things returned more or less to normal, though David did find reasons to be either outside or away from the house on those dates.
He considered confronting Gail about the picture, but decided against it. Her love for him was beyond doubt, and when he could look at it dispassionately he could understand that John was her first love; except for him, her only love, and the father of her child. He really couldn’t expect her to bury it completely.
It was two weeks after John had been released from prison, and he was hiding down the block from his ex-wife’s house. No, he wasn’t there to Burn The Bitch. He understood that it was his own fault that they were apart.
So, there he was. Was he stalking her? No, no, nothing like that.
As he watched, Gail came out holding Mark’s hand. They got into her car and drove away.
He took a deep breath; did he really want to do this? No, but he felt that he HAD to do it.
He walked slowly to the door and rang the bell.
David answered the door. He obviously recognized John and looked frightened.
“What do you want?” he asked, acting braver than he probably felt.
“I just wanted to thank you for loving my son. I know he thought I abandoned him, so it’s good to know he’s got someone to look up to.
“I know from Gail that you treat him as your own and that you’re raising him right. He’s better off without me so don’t tell him I was here. I just had to thank you.”
David nervously unlocked the screen door.
“You’re welcome,” he said, as he shook John’s hand, then John turned and walked away.
David was stunned by what had happened. He knew that John had been released from prison, and thought, no, worried that he would come by. In all of his imaginings of what might happen, having John thank him wasn’t even on the radar.
Gail and Mark would be home soon, and he worried about what to tell her. Although John had asked him not to tell Mark, he knew that he couldn’t keep it from Gail.
David was secure in Gail’s love, but now knew that she kept a special place in her heart for John. He knew about John’s picture that Gail kept hidden in her lingerie drawer, and never let on that he knew she gazed at it every year on her and John’s anniversary and John’s birthday.
As he heard Gail’s car pull up he knew what he had to do.
As always, Mark came running in, screaming, “Daddy, Daddy,” as he threw his arms around David’s legs.
Gail saw the look on David’s face, and remembered that John had been released recently.
“Mark, why don’t you go to your room; I need to talk to Daddy.”
“Okay,” he said with all the innocence of a child, and ran off to his room.
David went into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch, his hands clasped on his knees, staring into nothing.
Gail sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder.
“He was here, wasn’t he?” she asked.
“What did he do? What did he say? Should I call the Police?”
“God, no, don’t do that!” David said, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.
“Then what happened? Why are you so upset?”
“H ... He thanked me; that’s all, He thanked me, we shook hands, and he walked off.”
“That’s it? Why did he thank you?”
“He thanked me for raising his son,” David said, the tears now flowing freely.
Gail hugged David, pulling him to her breast, letting him cry himself out.
When David pulled himself together, they sat silently for a moment.
“Where did he go?” Gail finally asked. “We’ve got to get him, let him see Mark!”
“No!” David said more forcefully then he intended.
“No? Why in God’s name not?”
“Because he doesn’t want us to. He feels that Mark is better off without him, that he has a good home here. It hurts me to say it, but I’m afraid he’s right. Maybe when Mark is older, but now... ?”
Gail was crying now, also, but she knew that he was right.