The End Of The Road

DeAnn Mallard did a double-take when she saw Tom Fergerson's car parked in his driveway across the street as she passed her living room window and gave a cursory glance through the pane. Tom had been missing in action for three months and DeAnn had been concerned about her absent neighbor.

She wanted to ignore his return but her curiosity (and annoyance) got the better of her and, after a half hour of trying to fight the urge to ask him where the hell he'd been, DeAnn finally gave in, threw on a heavy spring coat, left her house, and walked across the street to Tom's house that had been lifeless for months.

She rang the doorbell and waited a few moments until the door opened. She wasn't sure who she was looking at when she saw who was standing in the foyer.

"Tom?" DeAnn asked with uncertainty.

His gray hair was long and scraggly. He had a thick and messy mountain man's beard. He had lost noticeable weight.

"Hi DeAnn," the guy replied, but his voice was hoarse and gravelly, nothing like she was used to hearing from Tom.

"Is that you, Tom?" She asked just to be sure.

"Come in," he said, stepping back and letting DeAnn enter the house.

His duffel bags and other luggage were piled inside the door to the living room.

"How long have you been back?" She asked.

"An hour, maybe?" Tom guessed.

"Where have you been?"

"On Vacation," he grinned, motioning for her to have a seat on the couch.

"For three frigin' months?" She asked as she accepted the seat.

He smiled as he took a seat in an easy chair. "It was great!"

"Where'd you go?" DeAnn frowned.

"I drove across the country," he said. "All the way to California, stopping everywhere along the way! Took a couple of those Hollywood tours when I got there. Then I flew over to Hawaii and saw the Pearl Harbor memorials. Came back to LA and drove to Alaska. Not many people get to drive to Alaska! Took one of those cruise ship tours of the Alaska coastline."

DeAnn was dumbstruck. "How the hell did you afford all that?"

"I cashed in some CDs," he said. "Sucked out some of my 401K."

She looked at him with disbelief. "Are you crazy?"

He shrugged. "Maybe."

"Well, how did you get three months off from work?"

"I retired," he answered.

"You're fifty-three."

"I'm disabled," Tom clarified.

"What?" DeAnn asked with confusion.

Tom sucked in a long breath. "I'm sick."

"You're sick?" DeAnn asked with concern.

"Anaplastic Thyroid Cancer," he revealed. "Terminal."

DeAnn fell back on the couch as if she had been punched in the gut. "What are you talking about?"

"It's a very rare form," he explained. "I had radiation and iodine treatment in the fall but it was too late to be completely effective. The doctor said I could continue the treatment with limited success and a less than fun quality of life or stop treatment and live out the remainder of my life with some quality and fun to it."

DeAnn felt dizzy. She stared at him in a surreal funnel of fear, hurt, anger and sorrow. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Because I didn't want people looking at me the way you're looking at me," Tom answered.

She blushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she said. "This is shocking. Upsetting."

"Yes," he agreed.

"What did Pam say?"

"I haven't told her," he shrugged.

"Why not?" DeAnn cried.

"She's remarried, DeAnn," Tom said. "Raising her step kids. What's she going to do with the news?"

"Well, what about your kids?"

"Not yet," he admitted. "I didn't want to ruin the holidays and I didn't want them stopping me from going on my trip."

"That's pretty selfish of you," DeAnn accused.

"They're living their lives," he said. "We're semi-estranged since the divorce. It's just going to add to the chaos and dysfunction."

"They have a right to know," DeAnn said forcefully.

"I'll tell them," he vowed.

"When?"

"Soon," he said.

She stared at him for a long time. "What were your symptoms?"

"Started with an earache," Tom revealed. "Some numbness on the side of my face. A sore jaw. Sore throat. I thought it was a lingering cold or maybe sinus issues. Then a lump appeared out of nowhere on my neck. That was around Halloween and that's when I started the treatment."

"Well, what's the prognosis?" She asked.

"It's probably going to metastasize into the brain or maybe the bones or lungs," Tom replied factually. "I've already made the funeral arrangements with Donnelly-Nolan."

DeAnn burst into tears and she buried her face in her hands to try to stop her sobs, catching Tom by surprise.

They were neighbors and friends when both were married. His kids were a little older than hers but they still hung out at neighborhood gatherings. Tom left the house and neighborhood for a while when his marriage ended but when his ex-Pam became involved in a new relationship and decided to move in with him, Tom returned to the house at about the same time the kids had moved out and DeAnn's husband Ron left for good.

DeAnn and Tom became kindred spirits, kibitzing and sympathizing on the challenges, emotions, frustrations and loneliness of failed marriages and dealing with children of divorce.

Pam's new husband had a nicer house and a more prestigious job as a business owner than Tom's desk job at an insurance company and the kids liked the new guy which often left Tom as the third wheel and forgotten Dad. He didn't go out of his way to try to compete with the new guy and that often left him as the odd man out.

"I shouldn't have told you either," Tom sighed, watching as DeAnn tried to pull herself together.

"Give me a minute," She requested, getting off the couch and going into the kitchen to blow her nose on some paper towels.

Tom followed her and he watched as she kept her back to him, staring out the kitchen window as she dabbed at her tears and blew her nose some more.

"I didn't mean to upset you," Tom said quietly. "Actually, I wasn't expecting this type of reaction."

"I would have gone on vacation with you," she said.

"As if you could get three months off from work," he reminded her.

"Well, you could have asked," she said, finally turned to face him, her eyes still glistening. "You could have let me known."

"I'm sorry," Tom said with sincerity. "I didn't realize you cared so much."

"Me either," DeAnn admitted. "I guess now we both know."

He held his hands out and DeAnn crossed the room, falling into his chest and she gasped when she realized how skinny and boney he was underneath his clothes. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

"I thought time was the one thing we had," DeAnn confessed with a sigh.

They stood in the kitchen for a long time until she finally broke the embrace, stepped back, and wiped her tears one more time. Tom smirked as he watched her.

"What?" She asked with a combination of embarrassment and annoyance.

"This is nice," Tom shrugged.

"Your kids are going to be upset you're spending all their inheritance," she warned.

"There's still the life insurance and the proceeds from selling the house," he reasoned. "They're both doing okay."

"You have to tell them," DeAnn told him.

"I will," he said. "I have a doctor's appointment at three. It's the reason I came home. He's gotta renew the sixteen prescriptions I'm taking."

"I'd like to think you came home for me," DeAnn said.

"Well, now that I know," he smiled.

She let out a long resigned and defeated sigh. "God, this sucks," she complained.

"Yep," Tom agreed.

She left the kitchen and Tom followed her to the front door. "Welcome home," she muttered as she opened the door.

"Thanks for greeting me," Tom replied.

She turned and looked at him for the longest time. He admired her beauty – her brown hair worn in a long pony tail, her dancing eyes, her full cheeks.

"Good luck at the doctor's," she said hopefully.

He nodded. "There's not going to be any miracles, DeAnn," he told her.

"I know," she sighed. "But it's important to stay positive and forward thinking."

She turned and left the house.

Tom watched as she walked down the front walk and crossed the street to her own house, feeling nostalgic and sad at the same time. Too bad he learned the truth about them when it was too late.