For the backstory challenge at sga_flashfic. Author's notes at the end.
John’s sharpest memory of his childhood is of going to the local library
in Falls Church, Virginia. He was nine years old.
He’d returned home with his first library card and a dog-eared copy of
Treasure Island, which he’d promptly carried straight into his room,
closing the door behind him. Even after close to a year, his room in the
house in Falls Church had remained almost empty, with only a bed, a desk,
and a chest of drawers for his clothes; he’d learned at an early age to
keep all his really special stuff—which at that particular time had
consisted of his football and his autographed photo of Evel Knievel—packed
in a duffel bag under his bed. This made it easy to pick up and go, less
likely to get left behind.
That day, he’d dropped onto his bed and opened up the rear cover of the
book, tracing the date stamp on the card with one finger. The librarian
had told him he could keep the book for fourteen days. The book was 273
pages long, so John assigned himself an ambitious 20 pages per day. Every
night for two weeks he curled up in bed with the book and a flashlight;
each morning, he woke up to find the book on the floor and the flashlight
On the day the book was due, his father brought him back to the library to
return it. John caught a glimpse of the two of them as they headed into
the glass-paneled front doors: John with his perpetually unruly hair and
nine-year-old pout, his father beside him, tall and thick and beige, like
a tree. There was nothing unusual about any of it -- but when they got to
the counter, John couldn’t bring himself to give up the book.
“But I’m not done,” he’d said softly.
His father had looked down at him calmly. “Rules are rules, Johnny,” he’d
said, and then he’d taken the book from John’s hands, handing it over to
the librarian while John blinked through the angry tears in his eyes.
When they got home, John shoved the library card deep into his duffel bag
and never looked at it again.
They moved nine times in sixteen years, and John learned
the lay of his native land by default. Texas, Massachusetts, North Dakota,
Alaska, California -- always another place near another base in another
town, with one pretty much just the same as all the others once you got
past the weather changes and the dialects. Making a friend or two was
never much of a problem wherever they went, not with John’s good looks and
easy ways, but keeping them was next to impossible. John always knew that
going in, though, so he learned early on not to let people get close to
him. It was better that way; better than always feeling guilty for leaving
His mother always did her best to make things good for John, praising the
unexplored virtues of each new place they went to, but the inherent flaw
in her strategy was simply that the concept of new had never
really been a novelty for John at all.
His sharpest memory of his mother is of standing on the tiny balcony
outside their second-floor window in Valdosta, circa age six, folding
paper airplanes and tossing them into the air. John had bounced up and
down on his toes, grinning madly, as the scraps of paper dove and twisted,
borne on the breeze. He’d imagined what it would feel like to ride the
wings . . . to be ruled only by the rush of the wind, feel the thrill of
no longer being tied to the ground.
He was twelve the first time he visited a planetarium.
It’s his sharpest memory of New Jersey, maybe the only reason he remembers
New Jersey at all. They’d been at McGuire for maybe two months by
then—another mid-semester transfer, another science class joined halfway
through—and nothing about it had been particularly memorable up to that
point, but a field trip meant getting out of the classroom for once, and
John was always up for anything that removed the walls separating him from
The planetarium was a twenty minute ride from the school. John managed to
snag the back seat on the bus, neatly edging his way past the other kids
and practically sprinting down the aisle to grab it -- not because the
location itself was such a prize, but because the seats in the rear were
much smaller, and no one would dare sit that close to him without an
The ride was bumpy and the bus was slow, gears grinding harshly
in the stop-and-go of early-afternoon traffic. Even with his window
lowered as far down as it would go, thick, humid air seemed to seep in and
settle around John, leaving his clothes damp and sticky. But once they
were inside the planetarium, it was cool and dark and perfect. Slouched
low in his seat, his knees lolling wide, John gazed up at the vast expanse
of sky and stars and for a while he didn’t have to pretend he didn’t mind
that he was surrounded by classmates who didn’t know his name. In the
darkness of the theater, all of them were anonymous.
Orion, the presenter had said. The Great Hunter, visible
from just about anywhere in the world. John leaned his head back against
the seat, admiring the powerful huntsman and the three great stars that
made up his gleaming belt, and thought: man, once you’ve been up
there, *then* you’d know you’ve been someplace.
When they left New Jersey, John added two more things to his duffel bag: a
new can of sex wax from (the original) Ron Jon’s, and a hand-propelled
helicopter he bought for 99 cents at the planetarium’s souvenir shop. The
sales clerk called it a puddle jumper. John thought that was pretty cool.
His first kiss was from a girl named Tess.
They were in California by then; John had gotten a good report card, and
there was a carnival in town. His mother gave him ten dollars, told him to
take a friend. John hadn’t really intended to bring anyone with him,
figuring ten bucks could go a heck of a long way for a guy running stag,
but Tess was the kind of girl who hooked her arm through yours and invited
herself along, and John had admired her confidence almost as much as he’d
been admiring her legs.
Together, they walked the entire length of the midway. They rode the
teacups, ate cotton candy, played boardwalk games until they ran out of
change. John shot clown faces with a plastic rifle and managed to win Tess
a huge purple bear, which earned him a brilliant smile that carried a
promise of good things to come.
But it was the Ferris wheel John would always remember from that long day;
the way the gondola carried him high above the ground, almost into the
clouds—so high it seemed to be inviting him to write his name, dark and
bold on the sky. Tess had kissed him then, up there at the very top,
lifting her face to his as the world slowed and their seat rocked gently
beneath them, and by the time the car began moving again John was hard,
trembling with it, poised right on the edge of release. Tess had smiled at
him, all secret-woman-smug, and John was too nice of a guy to tell her he
was pretty sure it wasn’t the kiss that had turned him on (because yeah,
Tess was cute, and kissing was kind of awesome -- but Ferris wheels,
oh my god.)
He figured that part out for sure a few months later, driving down the
Pacific Coast Highway in his beat-up old Chevy with his (temporary) best
friend, Ricky Burns. John was mid-sentence, lazily debating the merits of
college football versus pro, when suddenly Ricky leaned over, unzipped
John’s jeans, and bent down low over his lap.
Shocked into silence, John clenched the steering wheel tightly as pleasure
began to spread like warm, heavy liquid all through his limbs, fighting
the instinct to close his eyes as Ricky’s head moved between his legs.
Instead, he watched the needle on the dashboard steadily rise, registering
only vague impressions of trees flying by as his legs grew taut, pressing
the accelerator further to the floor.
He came with the wind in his hair and the sound of the old engine
straining beneath him; it felt like flying.
“Can’t do that in the Air Force,” Ricky said afterwards, wiping his mouth
with the back of one hand. Stunned and still breathless, John had
steadfastly looked straight ahead and wondered how he’d never seen that
Just before he turned eighteen, his father was deployed
“Rules are rules, Johnny,” he said. And: “Take care of your mother for
When Joan Sheppard’s tumor was diagnosed six weeks later, the doctors
assured John it wasn’t his fault. They’d simply caught it too late; there
was nothing anyone could have done.
We don’t leave men behind, he tells them, simply. They say things
too, a lot of things that basically all amount to Rules are rules,
Johnny, and then they question and confer and disappear behind closed
doors and eventually they come out and tell him what he’s always known:
that he has to leave. But John understands that because he’s used to
leaving, that’s what he does, and at least this time they actually let him
choose where he’s going to go. He chooses Antarctica simply because it
feels like the only place left on the planet he’s never been, and tries
not to wonder what’s left after you’ve been to the very end of the world.
Before leaving for McMurdo, he adds three more things to his duffel bag:
his Flutie-Phelan tape, his At Folsom Prison CD, and a brand-new
copy of Treasure Island -- fully paid-for this time, no
expiration date. He still has no idea how the story ends.
This little bit of a story has its roots in
challenge. I’d planned to write a fic based on Rebel Without a Cause,
and although I had a good basic idea of what I wanted to do, I could never
manage to get that story to pull itself together for me. But John’s
backstory for that fic has always been on my mind, and this challenge
finally seemed like the appropriate time to get it out of my head and onto
the page. The title of this story, as well as John’s “once you’ve been
up there…” line, are borrowed directly from that film.
Also of note: you can see a puddle jumper like the one John buys