A Year and Then Some
A John Biebe Story
A year, how could it be over a year since his life had changed from contentment to cold and empty? John Biebe sat staring out the frosted window of his little apartment. Today would have been his fourteenth anniversary. It shouldn’t mean anything to him but it did. This day represented his most profound failure.
Donna had been one of the most sought after young women in Mystery. She was pretty, with large brown eyes and soft reddish brown hair. John Biebe, newly arrived in Mystery, had taken a job with the Sheriff’s office. He knew Donna had recently broken up with a young man she was serious about. That didn’t stop John. The young Canadian had set his cap for the beauty and was determined to win her heart and a place on the ‘Saturday Game’ team. He did both in the year that followed.
He had finally hit rock bottom and the fall left him wondering, at 35 years old, why he was alive. The only feelings he had left were negative. He didn’t smile anymore or joke with his friends. In fact his friends, though supportive at the beginning of the divorce, had all but abandoned him. Who could blame them? He was somber, angry and foul tempered, not at all the man he was before Donna left him, stealing away with his children while he was gone to a law enforcement conference in Anchorage. He had returned home full of important information and new friendships to tell Donna about. So much had happened during those four days. He was also looking to mend the rift that came between them. He even bought her a beautiful ring to show her how much he appreciated and loved her.
It was evident the moment he stopped the truck outside of the home he and Donna had shared since their marriage, something was wrong. Mike, his oldest son, always ran out to greet his father, usually to ask him if he would go to the ‘pond’ with him. He, like his father, was an avid hockey fan and always looked for an opportunity to spend time with his dad as well as learn the many things his father could teach him about pond hockey.
John had hoped the quiet house only meant that Donna and the boys were at a friend’s home or perhaps at the restaurant in town. Donna would often take the kids there for a milkshake or lunch. It gave her the opportunity to meet with some of her friends and gossip while the boys enjoyed a fun meal and time away from home.
When he stepped into the kitchen, he knew. There was something different in the atmosphere. Nothing you could readily put your finger on, just a feeling of emptiness. As he ventured into the living room that feeling intensified. The usual toys, normally scattered here and there, were noticeably missing. Though Donna kept a clean house, she was never able to keep the boys from leaving their toys in the living room where they enjoyed playing most.
John hesitated before moving on down the hall toward the bedrooms. He dreaded what he instinctively knew he would find. A quick glance in the boys' room told him everything. The closet was empty, the dresser drawers were open and bare. All that was left were two plastic garbage bags full of clothes sitting on top of Mike’s bed. A note said, "For the church rummage sale."
He turned and moved to the next room, their room. On the beautiful down quilt was an envelope addressed to "John". He opened it with shaking hands and quickly scanned the note.
I’m sorry to leave in such a way but perhaps it’s for the best. I will call once we get settled.
That night he slept in the living room, not wanting the memories of past times they had shared in their bedroom. He swallowed shot after shot of whiskey, something he rarely drank. Once he was numb, the loneliness overwhelmed him and the tears flowed.
For months afterward he withdrew from everyone, spending his off time at his home alone, wandering from one room to another. He carried out his duties as sheriff with little enthusiasm. The girls at the office worried about him, but saved their comments for those times when he was out on patrol. They realized the extent of his hurt the day John had announced to the city fathers that he was resigning from the Saturday Game.
The Saturday Game was a Mystery, Alaska institution. Every Saturday the citizens of Mystery gathered at the frozen pond, sitting sometimes in sub zero weather, to watch their hockey players race from one end of the ice to the other. The game was akin to regular hockey, with changes to meet the small population and shortage of players.
The city fathers chose the teams randomly each Saturday morning. That way each of the players knew the strengths and weakness of both their opponents and their teammates. Furthermore, the competition was enhanced because none of the players knew before the game who would be on their team. They played four on four not five on five and the ice ‘arena’ was open. The size of skating surface dwarfed even the Olympic arenas. The men chosen to play in the Saturday Game were the crème d’ la crème of everyone who aspired to play hockey in Mystery. They were Mystery’s warriors.
Everyone in the little town knew how impassioned John Biebe was regarding the Saturday Game. They had been proud of his accomplishments on the ice for years, but never so much as the day he led the team to a near tie with the New York Rangers.
The game had been promoted by Charlie Danner, a former Mystery resident, who wrote a story about the Saturday Game. The story was slightly exaggerated, but well written. When Charlie was approached by one of the broadcasting companies about matching the New York Rangers with the Mystery players in an exhibition game, Charlie went to Mystery to sell the idea to the mayor and city fathers. The deal was made and Mystery hosted the game in front of millions of sports fans countrywide.
Mystery’s entire team had been magnificent against that professional hockey team, but none more than John. Everyone knew John had been cut from the team only weeks before the momentous game took place and it had shaken him. However, after Judge Burns agreed to coach the team he announced John would be the captain on the ice. John’s spirit had renewed, even doubled.
It was all tied to Donna and his feelings for her and about her. He knew she had loved him at one time, but there had been indications, that she was not happy. Oh, she had tried. She even convinced him on occasion that he was still as attractive as he had been when she first saw him in the Saturday Game fifteen years before, but there was also a restlessness that had never abated, a need to see something more than Alaska had to offer. "This is not an easy place for a woman," she had yelled during an argument. What she really meant was that it was not an easy place for her.
He knew she still held feelings for Charlie Danner, Donna’s high school sweetheart and first real love. When he left Mystery for New York, she had begged him to take her with him. When he refused, she believed it was because he hadn’t truly cared for her. It wasn’t until several years later, when Charlie returned for a visit, that she found out he refused to take her because he wasn’t sure how difficult it would be living in New York. He didn’t have a job, and taking her with him was too risky; he couldn’t guarantee her safety or comfort. He had done what he did out of love and concern for her well being.
When Charlie returned to Mystery with the intention of bringing the Rangers there for a game of pond hockey, Donna had watched with rapt attention as he explained during a town meeting. John saw the look on Donna’s face and tried to ignore it. Several times after that she had spent time in the stands with Charlie at the Saturday Game, laughing and smiling.
John and Donna had argued over his unfounded jealousy and John took the first step toward reconciliation by giving Donna a ‘Dear Abby’ column with all but the most poignant words blacked out. The words he chose to leave described how he felt about her and she had been touched. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.
They had made love that night and John hoped he had given her what she needed to stay. Unfortunately, that encounter left her pregnant and even more unhappy. She tried to tell herself the baby was a positive affirmation of John’s love for her, but his love was never in question. He was a man who, once committed, never strayed. She was the problem. She couldn’t get her feelings for Charlie to go away. The new baby represented just one more rope tying her down, keeping her in Mystery with a man she should love for all his positive qualities, but didn’t.
Why was that and when did it happen? Her husband was a handsome, loving man. He took care of her and their children. She also knew that other women were attracted to him. His soft low voice and reasonable attitude endeared both women and men to him. He had a wonderful smile and rarely lost his temper. He was an easy man to live with. After several years of marriage she came to realize she had affection but no real love for him. After Charlie returned this last time, she finally admitted that she could not go on like this for the rest of her life. She was miserable. Something had to change.
The final blow came when John found her lying on their bed crying. When he asked what was wrong, she told him she had gone to Whitebrook, not on a shopping trip, as she had told him; it had been to keep her appointment for an abortion. John could barely speak. When he did, only one word was uttered, "Why?"
He should have been furious; she was expecting that. Instead, he had reacted by crying. She apologized, of course, for making the decision without his consent, but it would have changed nothing. She told him she simply could not handle another child. He knew she really meant another one of his children. He knew he was losing her and reacted the only way he could in order to keep her from leaving right then. He held her, comforted her and forgave her. He should have saved his breath.
"Happy Anniversary." John muttered the words as he continued staring out the window.
Donna had called John once she arrived in New York. She told him Charlie had heard through his mother, that their marriage was on the rocks and he called Donna to see exactly how bad it was. Donna had broken down and cried and Charlie volunteered to come and get her right then while John was gone. That way there would be no confrontation.
True to his word, Charlie arrived in Anchorage on a company-owned plane and drove from there to Mystery. He gathered up Donna and her boys and made the drive back to Anchorage. It took only a little more than an hour before they were gone. Galen Winetka saw them as they drove through Mystery, or John would never have known Charlie was involved, not directly at least, until after Donna called.
Tree pounded on the door one more time. He knew it was the day, fourteen years after John and Donna had said their wedding vows. He was determined that John would not spend the day alone. Although John had given up his place on the Saturday Game and seemed to turn away from his friends, Tree knew better. The whole town knew better. Everyone in Mystery was willing to give John Biebe the time and space to come to terms with his loss. He was grieving as surely as Nanny Plunkett was, now that her husband died.
John heard the knock at his door and nearly refused to answer. Something inside said it was time and past to answer both the door and the town's request that he return to them. They wanted him back, whole and ready…ready to face whatever life had to offer.
John opened the front door and Tree stood there, a little uncertain about what to say. "Hey, Tree, what brings you here?" John spoke in such a way that Tree was encouraged.
"Hey Johnny! How about coming to the Saturday Game with me? We could go to Hattie’s afterward for a ‘Saturday Game’ dinner." He smiled tentatively, hoping John would come.
John hesitated only a moment, cast a glance toward the wedding announcement from Donna and said, "Sure, Tree. Just let me get my sweater and jacket."
John slipped his heaviest sweater on over the flannel shirt and tee shirt he was already wearing, then pulled on his heaviest winter overcoat.
Tree Lane, a tall imposing French Canadian with a large heart and perpetual smile, was thrilled when John actually accepted his invitation. No one in Mystery knew better than Tree how devastated John was when he found Donna and his boys gone. Tree had arrived at John’s home looking to welcome him back, only to find John in a near stupor from drinking. Tree had never known John to drink more than a couple of beers down at Harley’s bar. Seeing John drunk and crying upset Tree more than Donna’s leaving. He cared for Donna like a sister and the boys like nephews and he hated the thought that he might never see them again.
But John was always quietly strong, a solid man everyone could depend on to do what needed to be done. Watching him fall completely apart shook Tree. There was nothing he could say to make things better for his friend. When John angrily invited Tree to leave him alone, Tree decided that was the best course of action. He spread the word to everyone in town to give John space.
Judge Burns was the only one who countermanded that action. Never one to accept anyone else’s direction, the judge went to John’s house the next Saturday morning intending to draw him out. He found a man he never knew existed. John ordered him to stay away and to tell the townspeople to "leave me alone!" The judge had never known John to be confrontational nor raise his voice unnecessarily. He left, saddened at not being able to help.
"Johnny," Tree explained, "I need someone to encourage me. I’m slipping and I need you to tell me what I’m doing wrong." He said this as they walked down the snow-covered steps from John’s efficiency apartment.
John never knew Tree to lack confidence, well, maybe when the Rangers came. But he rallied like the rest when the ‘game’ started. It was a matter of pride. They’d all watched on TV the bad press the New York Rangers had participated in, during a warm-up session before one of the Saturday games. They all agreed; they couldn’t let the rest of the country see the game as a staged, commercial joke.
John marveled when the team, injured like they never had been before, rose to the occasion to shout words of encouragement to each other. Never had he been so proud as when a twist of fate stole their chance to tie the team, whose name alone inspired fear in the hearts of lesser men. When the audience from Mystery stood and gave them an ovation, shouting approval and supporting their home team, John and the rest were surprised and gratified beyond words. However, when the Rangers also gave their respect by tapping the ice with their sticks, John, the judge and all the members of Mystery’s team knew they were indeed worthy of being called ‘hockey players’.
John thought about the elation he felt after the game. Donna had treated him like a warrior worthy of a special homecoming. She recognized the man she had fallen in love with years before. He was strong, commanding and fearless. However, in the days following the ‘game’, he returned to being her husband, the father of her children and the sheriff of Mystery. It was not enough.
"Johnny, make sure you watch me so you can give me pointers. I’ll treat you to the "Saturday Game" dinner after the game. Okay?"
John smiled, "Since when do you buy anyone a dinner, Tree?" Tree just laughed and slapped him on the back.
As they reached the lodge that served as the locker room, John turned toward the bleachers and the crowd that gathered there, while Tree went to change. The mayor, Scott Pritcher, shouted, "John, Johnny! Come sit with Mary Jane and me."
Next to Mary Jane, a stunning red head who taught at the school, sat a woman John had never met before. He’d seen her around but hadn’t had the chance to introduce himself. She didn’t spend much time in Mystery, staying several miles away at her parent’s home.
John knew she had been born and raised here. He always made it a point to know the people who came and went. Hattie told him she left at eighteen to attend college in Seattle, where she met and married a very wealthy man. She had returned only once, when her parents were killed in an accident. She attended the funeral and left the next day. "Why is she back now?" he wondered.
Hattie also told him Lynne was a new widow. Her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack and left her very wealthy. According to Hattie, she had also inherited her parents, huge four-bedroom home. They built the place right after marrying and had hoped to have several children to fill the bedrooms. Unfortunately, a difficult birth had left Lynne’s mother unable to have more children. As a result, her parents had lavished all their love and attention on their only child.
As he moved up the steps to where Scott and Mary Jane sat, they moved over to allow John a spot next to the new woman.
"John Biebe, I’d like you to meet Lynne Hathaway. Lynne, John Biebe, Mystery’s sheriff." Scott smiled as he introduced them.
Lynne smiled and extended a gloved hand. "Nice to meet you, sheriff."
"Miss Hathaway." John shook her hand and quickly surveyed her face. She was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. Her large emerald green eyes sparkled and her platinum hair looked like a glossy waterfall against the dark fur of her hood. He didn’t want to seem too interested and released her hand while turning to sit on the bench next to her.
The men talked about each one of the players, their good points as well as their bad ones. Mary Jane told Lynne the names of each of the players as they emerged from the lodge and skated down to the pond. "John used to be in the Saturday Game, but he gave it up."
"Oh? Why is that?" Lynne smiled as she asked.
John didn’t want to go into any explanations with a stranger, so he said, "I lost interest." What he really meant was, "I lost interest in everything."
He kept his eyes straight ahead as though he was watching the players warm up, but John’s peripheral vision allowed him to watch Lynne covertly. He only had to look a little further north to see that her clothes were very expensive, her gloves were of the finest, softest kid-skin, and her face was nearly flawless. He knew from Hattie that Lynne must be around ten years his senior, yet she looked at least five years younger than Donna. "Good genes and expensive cosmetics," he thought. Wherever she lived before returning to Mystery must not have had much sun. She was lily white, and only the soft cheek blush and light lipstick gave her face color. "An Ice Princess" right out of the ancient stories from the Nordic countries.
Lynne leaned toward John and said, "I detect a slight Canadian accent. Are you originally from Canada?"
"Yes, near Calgary."
"So what brought you to Mystery?"
He hesitated a moment. "I finished my degree in law enforcement and wasn’t sure where I wanted to work. A friend of mine invited me to go with him and some other friends to Alaska to do some hunting right after graduation. I liked what I saw when we stopped in Mystery. There was a job opening for deputy and I applied. I’ve been here ever since."
Mary Jane glanced at Scott. This was going better than she thought. Tree had told her he was going to invite John to the game, so she invited Lynne in hopes that she would take his mind off Donna. Mary Jane received the wedding invitation announcing Donna and Charlie’s wedding four months away and wondered if Donna would be insensitive enough to send one to John as well.
Although Donna was her best friend, she knew Donna could be cruel in her own way. John deserved better than to return to an empty house and a simple note. When Mary Jane questioned her during a phone call, Donna had been cold, telling her that she deserved some happiness and she could never find it in Mystery. John wouldn’t consider moving and she hated living there. It was his fault. He should have listened to her and given her what she needed.
When Mary Jane asked about Charlie, Donna told her, "You know I was in love with Charlie when he left. That never changed."
"Then why did you marry John? Charlie said he would come back for you."
Donna began to cry. "I guess I never thought he would and I wanted to hurt him. I knew his mother would tell him I was getting married, but he never even called before the wedding."
"Okay, so you don’t love John but, Donna, you didn’t even tell him you were leaving. He’s devastated. He’s lost without you and the kids. You used him and his love for you to get back at Charlie then, to top it all off, you ran away without even explaining. That’s a bit cold, don’t you think? I mean, he was a good husband and father. Don’t you think he deserved better?"
"Oh, so now I’m the bitch!" Donna stopped crying and her voice turned from hurt to hate. "I knew John would never let me leave with the kids. Besides, if he’d been here when Charlie came, you know there would have been a fight. I just felt it would be less stress on everyone concerned. You can tell everyone in Mystery I did it because I thought it would be easier on all of us."
Easier on you, you mean. Mary Jane didn’t say it but that’s what she felt. When she hung up she told Scott, "I always knew Donna was spoiled and a little selfish, but now I see just how little she really cared about John. He’s better off without her."
"I doubt you’d get John to see that. I’ve never known a man more devoted to his wife and family." Scott never gave full vent to what he thought about the way Donna left. He was sure he and Mary Jane would have fought over it. Now, however, she saw her best friend in a new light and he was glad to see she was no longer willing to believe it was John’s fault that "poor" Donna left.
The game had been exciting and full of action as well as laughs. When it ended, John excused himself and went to wait for Tree. Scott had invited him to join them for dinner, but John explained that Tree and he already had plans.
The next morning John stopped by Hattie’s diner to pick up a donut and coffee, his usual breakfast. Lynne was there, sitting in a booth by herself. When she saw him walk in she called, "Good morning, Sheriff. Why don’t you join me?"
John didn’t really want to, but he didn’t want to be rude either. She made him vaguely uncomfortable, like having the original Mona Lisa hanging in the foyer of Mystery’s courthouse. She, like the Mona Lisa, deserved beautiful surroundings, not the simple things Mystery had to offer.
He tried to smile and moved to sit in the booth on the seat across the table from her.
"So, did you enjoy the game yesterday?" He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She appraised him and didn’t bother to cover the fact. What she saw were two beautiful blue-green eyes, dark brown hair, (longer than was stylish) a well-trimmed moustache and beard, cupid bow lips and a strong sturdy frame. Of course she couldn’t really tell if he was tight-bodied under all those layers of clothes, but she was willing to bet he hadn’t gone to seed yet. His eyes were sad and a bit wary. She made him nervous, that was certain.
"Yes, I did, very much. I haven’t seen a Saturday game in twenty-five years. It was like turning back the clock."
"So, how do you know the mayor and his wife?"
"Mary Jane is my cousin. You didn’t know?"
"No, I had no idea."
"Mary Jane is my Dad’s oldest sister’s daughter. She came to visit my parents one summer and decided to return after she got her teaching degree. I barely knew her, but blood is blood and the bond remains."
Hattie brought Lynne’s breakfast and asked if John wanted more than his usual. "No, Hattie, thanks. In fact if you could make it to go I’d appreciate it."
Lynne looked disappointed. "You won’t stay and keep me company?"
John looked embarrassed. "No, I’m sorry, I’m on duty this morning. Maybe some other time."
Hattie arrived with a styrofoam cup full of her fresh brewed coffee and a donut still hot from the oven. John stood, gave Hattie the money for his order and offered to pay for Lynne’s. She declined. He couldn’t leave fast enough.
Over the next two months John seemed to open up more and more. He broke away from that dark place he’d been hiding and again became a part of the community he loved so much. He still missed Donna and the kids intensely but after reading the wedding invitation several times, he finally settled himself to the fact that Donna would never return to Mystery or to him. Even the final divorce papers hadn’t convinced him. He had still held hope that she would come to her senses and realize what she’d done. The wedding invitation was the final declaration.
He knew even before they were married that he was competing for her love. He thought, while standing at the altar and seeing her so radiant and smiling, that he’d won. It only took their wedding night to prove him wrong. They made love and he’d given her everything physically and emotionally he had to give. When he felt her slip from their bed he awoke. Only moments later he heard her crying in the bathroom and went to see what was wrong. She told him she was just tired from the reception and couldn’t seem to sleep. He knew better. Something in her eyes told him; when they made love, she was seeing Charlie Danner, not him.
Over the next four years he doubled his efforts to convince her he was what she needed. When Michael was born nearly four years into their marriage, John saw a surprising softness in her eyes as he held their newborn son. He was certain she was over Charlie.
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