The park next to the hospital was almost empty as darkness fell on the clusters of bare trees that stuck out of the ground like gnarled fingers reaching for him. Johnny hated the twilight but it was the only time that there were no people jogging along the sidewalk or swimming in the freezing lake.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
"Look man, you can do a few more laps around the park," Bruce says in an encouraging tone. "Just a few more. We'll take it slow."
Johnny doesn't want to, but he has to. It'll make his legs stronger. It gives him something to do, because if he stops and thinks it'll all fall apart.
"You're doing good. Just a few more."
Shuffling around never was his way to go. He used to run, he used to slide gracefully and quickly over the slick ice, sweat matting his hair underneath his helmet as he catches a glimpse of the ebony puck and raises the stick in his arms and . . .
The ground rushes up to meet his face as Johnny stumbles and lands on the prickly grass. His legs hurt and he hates feeling the pain but maybe it's better than the alternative.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
Bruce sits down next to him, smiling. "It's okay, well just stop here for now and take a break." He paused. "Johnny . . . you seem a little tense lately. I know it's hard waking up and finding the world to be a different place, but you have to start taking control."
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
Then again perhaps the alternative is better, Johnny thinks. He feels too much now. He can't control it, he's lost control of everything; Sarah, his friends, his job, his son . . . oh God his son, a small John Smith who looks at him like a stranger with fear in his eyes that look so much like his and all Johnny wants to do is envelope this little Johnny in a big hug and take the fear out of those eyes . . .
But he can't.
The most basic of human senses, touch, and he can't reach other people, he's scared of what he might see, no, he's terrified . . .
Bruce senses that Johnny isn't paying attention and his mouth snaps shut. He stares at Johnny, who is staring out at the lake without blinking and they sit together in companionable silence.
On the outside Johnny looks as serene as the lake at which he stares but inside hes screaming. None of this is real, he'll go back to sleep and in the morning he'll wake up and go to school and teach his kids and during lunch hours he and Sarah will sneak little kisses side by side in the empty classrooms until the bell rings . . .
"Johnny," Bruce begins again.
And after school the sun will shine on his laughing face as he and Sarah grin at the antics of the dozens of eager teenagers leaving class and they'll head to Johnny's home to pick up a snack and grade papers as they snuggle together on his old leather couch . . .
Bruce gazes at Johnny and continues, "I know no one can understand what you're going through. I know you want everything to be the way it was six years ago . . ."
The smell of Sarah's hair is sweet with the smell of the strawberry scented shampoo that she uses and a second smell that is uniquely her and as Johnny leans toward her to catch another whiff of that scent . . .
"Things have changed," Bruce says, catching Johnny's cool azure eyes with his own warm chocolate ones, "and I know that it doesn't seem real right now and I know that you're afraid to reach out now and accept that things have changed . . ."
Johnny raises his hand to touch Sarah's hair. Expecting it to flow like silk over his long fingers and instead he feels nothing.
" But I think what you need most of all right now is a friend. And when one person can't reach out on his own," Bruce paused.
And Johnny just stares unblinkingly at him but inside he continues to scream and rage because he's changed his mind, he wants to feel, but which reality does he want to feel? Because one is filled with misty ghosts and the other is so damned hard, filled with its own ghosts . . .
". . . Then his friend reaches out for him," Bruce finished, and pulls a stunned Johnny into his arms and squeezes and lets Johnny pound at his back until suddenly the golden haired man relaxes and stops resisting.
Johnny lets out the tears that he's been keeping inside him for so long because he's made his choice as he leans into Bruce's hug and for once ignores the sights and sounds and smells of the other reality that he is transported into and holds on to the sense of touch- using it as an anchor so he doesn't float away.
He's picked his reality and will never let go of it because he'll be damned if he lets Sarah and his son slip away from him in this reality as they did in the last. He's finally learned to feel again.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.