I strayed away from my usual topic--Laura and Almanzo--and drafted this Mary and John Jr. story, which takes place in Season 8. Prior to John's death, Mary had received a package from him, but she never had the courage to open it until after Pa wrote her about what happened to John in Chicago.
I hope you like it.
John’s Last Words
LHOP inspired fan fiction by Cheryl C. Malandrinos
Disclaimer: I do not own the Little House on the Prairie television series, book series, or any of the characters.
Mary’s fingers traced the rectangular shape of the package wrapped with paper and tied with a coarse twine. When the package arrived three weeks ago, the Post Mistress had told her that it had been mailed from Chicago. Mary only knew one person in Chicago--John Sanderson Jr.
Bringing the parcel home with her, Mary tucked it away in the back of the wardrobe behind Adam’s shoes and hid it with spare blankets. Several times while Adam was at the office, Mary reached into the wardrobe for the box, believing that she had finally worked up enough courage to open it. But in the end, a fear of its contents forced Mary to tuck it back under the blankets hoping she could forget it was there. When Pa had written her to tell her that John Jr. had been killed, a new fear crept into Mary’s soul--what if the contents of the package could have saved John’s life?
Determination coursed through Mary’s veins and the need to discover why John would have sent her anything just weeks prior to his death, and after all those years without so much as a letter, led Mary to dive into the back of the wardrobe to uncover the hidden parcel. Adam had left for work, so Mary had the entire house to herself until dinnertime.
Mary’s stomach tumbled over as anxious thoughts pierced her mind. Did John know he was in danger? Why didn’t he send the package to Grace, his mother? What was so important that John had to contact her now? What could John have that Mary would want?
Slicing through the string, Mary hesitated before folding the paper back. After a long, deep breath, Mary’s fingers slid along a sturdy, smooth wooden box that smelled store bought. Her fingers found the cold hinges and worked their way around to the front of the box and flipped it open. The inside was lined with a soft fabric. Mary’s hands searched through the box’s contents--an envelope, a book, and several pieces of paper tied together with twine.
A smile curled the corners of Mary’s lips as her fingers felt the familiar texture of Braille letters on the front of the envelope. John had written her name perfectly. Tugging a hair pin out of her bun, she sliced the sealed edge of the envelope and pulled out a few pieces of folded paper and a key. She removed the creases from them and laid them on top of the bedspread.
It must be a shock to receive my letter. It seems like forever since we said goodbye in Chicago. We never really did say goodbye, did we? You just left once you discovered my indiscretion. My humblest apology is long overdue. Oh, how my heart bleeds every time I see your disillusioned face staring back at me in the Cotillion hall. If I could have just spared you that one pain. I was a cad, no worse, a villain torturing you with the feelings still burning in your heart and claiming I no longer knew the love we had. But I was wrong my dear, sweet Mary--so wrong. I realized it by and by, usually at night while I sat alone in my room looking out over the lamp-lit streets of Chicago. Flashes of your smile, the clear blueness of your eyes, the tenderness of your kiss, soared through my mind, filling me with an excitement this city never has. I wanted to go to you and beg your forgiveness, but I did not deserve such kindness after my transgression.
So, I decided to stay in Chicago, though I would never be able to erase the horrible memory of the pain in your eyes.
The paper shook under Mary’s trembling fingertips. She stood up to retrieve a handkerchief from the top drawer of her dresser. Dabbing at the wet drops threatening to tumble down her cheeks, she took three deep breaths and walked out to the kitchen for a glass of water.
Wandering back to the bedroom, Mary was unsure that she should continue. She hadn’t thought about Chicago for years, but John seemed to live it as if it happened yesterday. Sitting back down on the bed, Mary separated the pages to see how many were there. Four total. What else had John written her about? Did he know he was treading on dangerous ground with his reporting? Scared, but curious, Mary found her place and continued.
My writing became my life, actually, my bride. I never sought the attention of another. If I had been a bigger man I would have come home to you, even if you turned me away. But I couldn’t face knowing what you must think of me.
Mary had once played out in her head how dreadfully cruel she would be if John Jr. ever tried to apologize. It seemed foolish now.
Poetry came harder after you left. You had always been my inspiration--even from Chicago. No one touched my heart the way you did. My soul willingly poured itself out to you and I could not contain it if I tried. Even though I still pulled good grades in school, it just wasn’t the same as before you came here and I broke your heart.
Tired of forcing the words and nearly penniless, I turned to journalism. Mr. Callahan treated me well, giving me my first assignment even though I had been a copy boy at the beginning. I embraced my work with passion, knowing it would need to satisfy my hunger for creativity. And when I wasn’t thinking of you, it did. But at night, all alone in my room, you came to me. Sweet, angelic, and loving, your face filled my dreams and the memory of you was so vivid I swore I could feel your hands on my cheeks as you pulled me into a tender kiss.
Nervous sweat beaded up along Mary’s hairline, the heat of embarrassment flushing her cheeks. How could he speak of her in such a way when the girl he knew no longer existed? She had been replaced with the older, more realistic woman she pictured would reflect back at her in the mirror. Surely the girl John spoke of no longer existed after all the losses she had experienced. Mary didn’t know if she wanted to continue, but she had made it this far.
I had no idea what I would uncover. It was supposed to be a human interest story…but it turned out to be so much more. It’s evil Mary; pure evil. Deals made in dark, smoke-filled rooms, corruption, outright stealing the likes of which I have never seen. If I survive this assignment I am going back home…not that I’m sure where that is these days. I’m afraid what I’ve uncovered might result in me being hurt, or worse. Yes, it’s that bad. I know at least one man is following me. I try not to go out after dark, but these men don’t cut their deals in the daylight. I’ll be thankful when this is over. I’m almost ready to bring it all to Mr. Callahan. It has to be perfect. This is my first assignment for the paper and if I don’t get all my facts straight I’ll never find another job at any paper in the country.
So, he did know, thought Mary. She gazed across the room, seeing nothing, but knowing the bedroom window faced east and the sun would be flooding the room. She meandered over to the window and felt the heat of the late morning sun on the glass.
Oh John, I hope you didn’t suffer much. Tears slid down her porcelain cheeks. Did you put up a fight or did they ambush you? Were you scared or did it happen way too fast for you to think?
Mary wrapped her arms around her body and shivered, though no breeze entered the room. “Why didn’t you stay in Walnut Grove with me?” she murmured.
But just as quickly, she shook the thought from her mind. Adam was the perfect husband. She loved him with all her heart. They had been through so much together. And even though they had lost two children, they held out hope that God would one day bless them with a family.
Swiping away the tears, Mary returned to John’s letter.
I know it’s been a long time, but I wanted to send you a few things…just in case. The book is John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the one that Grace gave me right before I went away to college. No one else could appreciate it the way you will. Do you remember all the days we spent together reciting poetry? “Paradise Lost” was your favorite. Is it still?
“Yes it is,” she whispered.
Mary found the hard, textured binding of the book. She clutched the book to her chest, rocking back and forth as if it were a child who had been startled awake by a bad dream. Tears dropped onto her shirt leaving tiny wet spots on the clean, white muslin. With the book beside her, she read more.
The enclosed letters--many written in Braille--are my numerous attempts at an apology for the pain caused by my foolish, callous behavior in Chicago. If I had been more of a man they would have come sooner.
Mary felt for the letters and found a large pile tied with twine. She fingered through them. There must be dozens of them.
Since I am baring my soul, I must also admit that my mother has kept me abreast of developments in your life. Grace and Caroline still write to each other often. When I found out you were getting married I wanted to take the next train to Dakota Territory and profess my undying love…but that would have been unfair. I’ve laid awake many nights trying to imagine the man you married. From what Caroline has told Grace, he treats you well. I hope you’re happy.
“I am,” said Mary.
I felt the loss of you even more when I found out you gave birth to a son. I always hoped your children would be mine as well. I am sorry to hear that your baby was lost in the fire that consumed the blind school. I wish I could have been of some comfort to you during that difficult time, but I felt it was not my place.
Mary needed to pull away again before her emotions overwhelmed her. She walked into the kitchen and began preparing Adam’s dinner, but even the busy work could not distract her mind. All these years she had harbored ill-will against John. The wound inflicted upon her heart never fully healed. And while she did not waste much time thinking about Chicago, when she did recall the events of that night, the pain still stung.
It was difficult to talk about her son or to think about what happened to him. She never should have left him that day. She should have bundled him up and brought him with her when she took the other children outside. Not only was she a bad mother; she cost Alice Garvey her life.
Tears slid down Mary’s cheeks. She would never get over what happened at the blind school. Never.
Several moments passed before Mary could return to John’s letter. It seemed he knew a lot more about her life than she did about his. Mary wondered why her Ma never mentioned it. Maybe she didn’t know Grace shared this information with John.
With only two pages left to John’s letter, Mary summoned the courage to go back to the bedroom. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, her fingers found where she left off.
I have no right to speak to you with such intimacy. You must think I’m deranged or perverse. I mean you no harm, and even if my worst fears don’t come true I will never contact you again. But when a man is faced with the possibility that his life might end abruptly and without warning, he feels the need to make amends for past wrongdoings. I can think of no one I did wrong to more than you. I wish it weren’t true. If I could turn back time and change the decisions I made, I would not hesitate to do it. But, alas, my dear Mary, I remain the country boy who was seduced by the immorality of a huge city. Chicago changed me--and not for the better. I have spoken of going home if I make it out of this mess alive, but I don’t feel like I belong there anymore. I’ve become a man without a home--too much city in me to fit in on the prairie and too disgusted with the crooked dealings that are commonplace here. Is there anywhere for me to hang my weary head and be at peace?
I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re reading this letter, I must be dead. I doubt it would ever see the light of day while I am alive. Maybe you were wondering if I knew the danger I was in. You now know I did. Perhaps you were curious to find out if I married or had children. I couldn’t after losing you. What do you think of me now? Do you still see the young man dressed in his tuxedo, holding another woman close on his arm? Have you softened toward me even a little? I have no right to ask anything from you, but it is my fondest hope that you remember me as something more than a rogue.
May God shine down upon you and grant you every happiness in the world, Mary. I know of no one who deserves to be happy more than you.
All my love,
Mary wiped away the tears sliding off her chin. Folding the letter, she tucked it back into the box and locked it with the key she found inside the envelope. She placed the box back into the corner of the wardrobe and buried it under the blankets. Wandering over to the night table, she grabbed her Braille version of “Paradise Lost”. Sliding John’s copy of the same book off the bed, she tucked it under her arm and walked out of the room.
Her rocking chair stood next to the fireplace waiting for her. Mary dropped into the chair and placed John’s book on her lap, then opened her version. Her fingers touched the bumpy pages which would tell the story she had loved since she was a young girl engaged to John. The front door clicked open.
“Honey, I’m home,” shouted Adam.
Mary rushed to greet him and hold him close.
“If I’m going to get such a warm greeting from you, I’ll be late for dinner every day.”
Mary’s face remained serious and Adam noticed a black, bound tome in her right hand. It seemed awfully small to be a Braille book.
“What’s that?” he asked, pushing a tendril of hair away from her face.
“’Paradise Lost’ by John Milton. It’s my”
“Favorite, I know. But where did you get that one?”
“From a good friend. If you have some time, I would like to tell you all about John Sanderson Jr.”